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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 42

THE SONGBIRD

Erik secured the scarf over his head, a cutlass on his belt. I hugged the post of our bed, watching. My hair was tied off my face, braided on the sides and down the center of my skull, and I’d slipped into tight, black trousers, with a dark tunic. One dagger made of dark steel, the other the elven blade abandoned by Skadi.

My stomach ached. Bile burned my throat. Breathe. Focus.

It was then I took note of the slight tremble in Erik’s fingers when he tied the knot behind his head. Bold, fearsome, bloodthirsty—those were all the things that made up the Ever King, but rarely did anyone speak of his unease, his unspoken affection for his people, his family.

There was no mistaking I was terrified. Dozens of horrid ways this all might go wrong rattled in my head, but I told Erik once no one lifted him when he stumbled. That needed to change.

I slipped my arms around his waist, pressing my cheek between his shoulders, and spoke softly. “You are Erik Bloodsinger, son of a brave sea witch, challenger of the earth bender, master of the Ever Queen’s body—”

Erik snorted a laugh and turned to face me. He cupped one side of my face. “Your words help, Songbird.”

I rose onto my toes and kissed him. Slow, tender, a lasting kiss I wanted to taste through the rest of what would come.

In the corridor, the others waited for us. Mira went down the line of earth fae, dipping her fingers in fish blood, and dragged the tips over their faces. My father and Stieg had runes on their throats, their palms.

Jonas and Sander had kohl darkened around their eyes, much like Aleksi. When Mira stood in front of me, she smiled through the blood and dark runes down the center of her lips and forehead. “Queen.”

I closed my eyes while she painted hot, sticky tracks of blood down my lashes and cheeks.

“What’s it for? I mean, it’s fearsome, but why?” Celine whispered to Aleksi.

“We bless it, the blood,” he said. “A sacrifice to the gods for protection.”

“Hmm.” Celine shrugged. “Then I want some.”

My heart warmed, seeing a few of the sea fae, some from the Ever Crew, take traditions and prayers of the earth fae. For a moment, we truly were like one united people.

Bells of warning rolled over the outer walls. Erik took my hand and kissed my palm. “A thousand turns, Songbird.”

“Longer.” I held him close, clinging to the rapid beat of his heart for a dozen breaths.

Erik brushed his thumb over my cheek, and a dozen unspoken things gleamed in his eyes. Then he took the lead and barreled down the corridor.

Staff at the palace ran about, frenzied. When the din of the bells worsened, one clang after the other. Avaline, surrounded by a gaggle of courtiers, darted into the hall, eyes wide in a bit of horrified curiosity. The king demanded they take to the royal chambers and barricade themselves behind the doors.

For a moment, Joron’s daughter seemed to battle with joining the fight—if only to experience something new—and taking to safety. Only after the urging of a siren with dark braids to her waist did Avaline take to the staircase to the upper floors.

Erik paused at a window. “The isle, it’s here as we thought.”

Off the shores of the royal city, dark mists billowed from peaks and forests. In the early morning light, water flowed off the isle’s shores, glistening like starlight crystals as the land rose from the sea. It would be beautiful were it not for the rows of shields, the burning tipped arrows that spread over the parapets and shorelines.

Larsson had his army.

“We expected this.” I spun to a palace guard. “Send word to Tavish of the House of Mists, tell him the lands have risen. Those words precisely. Tell him to set to breaking any new spell casts they may have placed. Now. Go!”

The guard dipped his chin and abandoned the palace, racing for the sea.

“Think we’ll get on without some nasty spell business like the day you were pulled off?” Jonas whispered.

“My removal broke those wards, and Arion needs his battle,” I said. “They’ll want blades, but it would be foolish to anticipate there would be no spell work against us. Fione will be cowering on those shores.”

My lip curled. With how deep her role had gone, I looked forward a great deal to meeting the sea witch again.

From the edges of the isle, black sails rose against the sunrise like a blight in the dawn. The ship was unlike any I’d seen in the Ever. A sleek hull, like it might be half formed into the longships back home and the larger decks of sea fae ships. There were open decks where folk could walk near the rails but drop belowdecks to take cover.

Long, powerful, the laths seemed made of iron, but the nearer it came it was the same black oak wood I’d seen across the fading isle.

A ship of shadows that cut through the sea in a frenzy, as though the wind mattered little. Gods, doubtless they would have power aboard, weapons, magic. I flexed my fingers, swallowing against the sour burn creeping up from my insides.

Larsson did not have the Ever Ship, but this was no weak foe. Even now, there was a torrent around the keel that looked much like the royal ship as it claimed the sea. Like the Ever’s waters sensed its royal blood.

It would truly be a battle of which son was chosen to win the games of the tricky Norns today.

The king shouted for his household to take cover, to seal up their chambers, to guard the doors. He gripped a palace guard’s shoulder. “Call out the palace ships. Take to the wind. Go, go, you bastard.”

The guard crashed through a door, disappearing down a spiral staircase.

His crimson eyes blazed when he faced me. “You are my queen, my equal, but this fight is mine, love. The choice to stay—”

“Gods, I hope you are not telling me to stay behind, Erik Bloodsinger.” I trapped his face between my palms. “And do what? Watch from the window as you risk your damn life? By your side, that is where I stand. Your battles belong to me, like mine belong to you.”

Erik let out a rough breath; his brow pressed to mine. “Then make ready to sail, Queen.”

Ferocious cries, wild and strange, rose beyond the palace. It was a sight—the sea fae taking to the water.

White tides thrashed from merfolk launching out beyond the gates, protecting their land from beneath the tides. Palace guards dressed in silver and blue, marked towers and every lower level of the city. They lined the cobbled roads, they took to the towers of the palace. With great heaves they arranged long iron shields, half a head shorter than their own bodies, adding another barrier against Larsson’s attack.

A strong hand took hold of my shoulder. My father gave me a small grin. “Face it without mercy, little love. Win your kingdom.”

My brow furrowed when I embraced him, taking a bit of comfort from the arms that’d always been there, that still were.

“We take to the sea,” Erik shouted. He held out a hand for me without a glance, as though he knew I would be close, and stepped through the wide doors.

The bells rattled through the city. A warning, dire and urgent. Crewmen abandoned their homes and families, sprinting toward the palace gates. Men on the watchtowers along the shore spun heavy cranks. Gates with spiked tips slowly rose from the depths of the sea like an underwater army, and sea plants draped over the brutal pikes like bits of flesh as they tore toward the sky.

“King Erik!” Gavyn drifted toward the edge of the walls. The bone lord offered a lazy sort of salute off his brow. “Meet you on the waters.”

Gavyn was gone in the next breath.

At the gates, Alistair, chin lifted, hands clasped at his back, stood stalwart.

“My King.” The old steward faced us and dipped his chin. “My Queen.”

“Alistair.” Erik paused. “Defend this house.”

The man was in a constant state of propriety, but when he bowed at the waist, I was certain his chin trembled, his voice grew smaller. “‘Tis my honor.”

Crimson sails caught the morning light—blood in the water. The black gloss of the bone and wood hull awaited its king. The crew bustled, strapped in knives and blades, humming their eerie song . . . we work, we rot . . .

Deep grunts of hoheave, rippled across the deck with each tug of the thick ropes, leveling the ember spears with the notches in the hull.

“King’s aboard!” Skulleater roared from the helm. Erik held my hand, and upon the sight of me, words changed to, “Make way for the queen!”

The Ever Crew scuttled back, leaving a clear path for Erik to rush to the helm. I clasped tightly to rigging, one foot propped on the rail, peering at the approaching ships. More than the phantom ship, smaller sloops and skiffs much like the royal city had embarked across the water.

Steel glided over leather. Down the rail, my friends, my family, unsheathed blades. Jonas and Sander had darkened their eyes, readying to plant endless nightmares in the minds of others. Mira kept close to Alek, both leaning over, watching the funnels of the spears lock into place.

My father and Stieg followed Erik, flanking him, almost protectively, at the helm.

“Ready on the spears!” Tait barked, marching up and down the deck, cursing at the crew to heave the cinder stones into the mouths of the spears.

Sewell took the opposite rope at my side, fearsome and brutish in a way I’d never seen of the man. He’d trimmed his dark beard, shaving turns off his face and lifting a hidden scar down his cheek I’d not noticed before.

Tied over his glossy hair was a blue scarf with the emblem of the House of Bones printed on the crown. Strapped across his chest were two daggers. I held his stare. No words were needed, a silent plea to keep breathing was leveled between us.

“Stormbringer!” Erik’s voice lifted. “Tidecaller! Warrior! Bring the storms.”

“We’ve never used three magics!” Celine rattled back, gaze drifting toward Stieg. “We don’t know what it’ll cause.”

Erik’s eyes took on a bit of wild madness. “Meet your post or get off the deck.”

Celine hissed at the king, teeth bared, but rushed to her familiar place. Instead of only Stormbringer summoning a torrent in the waves, Stieg stood beside them, drawing down the fury of the skies.

“Full cover!” Erik shouted over the helm.

The crew heaved the lines until every crimson sail fell into place.

Erik’s shoulders tensed and pulsed as he yanked the helm, hand over hand, until the ship groaned, and aimed the bow toward open sea.

“Take her into the winds, Me King!” A knobby man clinging to the main mast cackled into a mounting storm.

With a flick of his palms, from bow to stern, sails whipped and snapped, expanding like breath in the lungs.

Horns bellowed in our wake, signaling the smaller ships of the royal city followed the lead of the Ever Ship. Sails and keels churned the water, thrashing in the wind toward the approaching ships.

Fins in the water were the only sign merfolk guided us, they darted forward through the currents, hissing and shrieking their wild voices whenever they broke the surface before diving beneath again.

Grim clouds spiraled overhead. Heavy drops of rain splattered over the deck like pebbles. Celine kept her post between Stormbringer and Stieg. Silent at first, but soon enough, Tidecaller took command, cursing and shouting at the two men to prove their rage in the wind.

Hate, hot and sharp, needled through my chest when I leaned over the rail, gaze on the dark sails ahead. Larsson Bonekeeper. The ways I wanted him to suffer, thoughts boiled over my brain in violence and gore.

I wanted to watch him break under the blades of the king.

Erik aimed the hull of the Ever Ship at the phantom vessel. The royal ships in our wake spread across the water, creating a wall of sails and masts.

For a moment, the world went still, quiet, as though the storm had swallowed us into the heart and would not release us to the awaiting fury.

“Fire at will!” Erik bellowed against the wind, shattering the lull.

“Fire!” Tait echoed down the line.

I did the same. Like a natural voice took hold and ripped the words from my chest.

The first round of spears launched. Blasts heard to the highest peak of the palace. Flashes of red. A whistle of wind. Sparks of fire burst through the black clouds.

Jonas roared in vengeful delight when the first crack of splintered wood shattered the bowsprit. Again, and again, cinder stones collided with the mast, the hull, the rails. A direct hit to the center sail punctured a gaping wound through the angled canvas.

Aleksi whooped and hooked an arm around Mira’s neck as they cheered until what looked like black tides misted around the sails, the masts, the hull.

My heart stilled when Larsson’s vessel simply faded like the spray of the sea.

Then came Erik’s voice, calm, dark, urgent. “Down! Take cover.”

I faltered back a step. With a riotous roll of waves, the phantom ship split through a wall of water. Hulls slammed against hulls. Wood and bone groaned and protested. Screams of crewmen clinging to the rails, tumbling into the sea, burned in my skull.

“Make ready to board!” Tait, Erik, maybe it was Aleksi who’d called the command.

Board. This was the moment I’d feared and craved since Larsson Bonekeeper stole me from my king.

Dread and anger burst from my chest in a cry against the rain. Decks of the enemy ship were so close, I could see the silver buttons along the gambesons and cloaks of the elven folk. Black sails crashed with crimson. Rigging tangled with masts and sails. Both ships rocked and swayed, finding their bearings in such close range.

Chaos wrapped around the deck.

I needed to stand by Erik, needed to ready our blades. Burly arms surrounded me, covering my head, before I had a chance to reach for my king.


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