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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 48

THE SERPENT

There was power in the water. Salt and rain and the sweetness of the Ever, all of it seeped into my blood.

My battered leg went numb, almost deadened weight, but at least the pain no longer stole my breath. In my grip, the cutlass was heavy, my shoulders ached with fatigue. Larsson hacked his sword against my middle. There was a slicing sound and a bite over my chest. The point managed to nick the torn flesh over my heart.

Pain, white and hot sliced through my body. Another lull in the waves, and the ship slammed against one of the freshly raised seafloor peaks. Larsson fell face down. My spine struck the back rail and knocked my cutlass from my grip.

Blade lost, I opened my arms, and the deep, poignant hum rumbled from my chest. Turbulent water shot upward, like a tower seeking to touch the stars. When Larsson raised his head, he cursed and shielded his skull as I dropped the crushing tide over the top of him.

The force was harsh enough rails cracked, and half the quarterdeck and back chambers shattered into the Ever.

A whistle sliced through the storm. The burst of the main mast shattered after a burning cinder stone pummeled through the center. Cyclones and whirlpools, ships and blades, from all sides the power of the Ever converged on this moment, this ship.

They were fighting for our world, and somewhere in there was the truth—they were fighting for me. For the first Ever Queen.

I dropped my call to the tides and retrieved my cutlass, refusing to fail them.

Energy seeped from my blood. Fighting eased on the main deck, more eyes turned to us, a final stand. Larsson’s rogue crew gathered on one edge of the quarterdeck. Some looked like they’d joined after the fall of Hesh, and some had the deep eyes of the elven. Movement behind me hinted my own men could be coming to stand at my side.

Larsson found his feet. “Is this how we end, Erik? Fight until no one is fit for the blood crown? This is my birthright. Give it to me, and I will let you live, let you stay as brother to the king.”

“If you had told me that not even a turn ago, I would’ve heartily agreed.”

“You would’ve never given up the crown.”

“I hated the crown. You knew it was my prison!” I used the back of my sleeve to wipe brine off my lashes, bracing as a wave knocked us back against Valen’s cliffs, grounding the ship for good.

“So let it go, Bloodsinger.”

Steady again, I turned, teeth flashing. “Never. Not after what you did to her.”

“Are you so proud you’d destroy the Ever through our blood?” Larsson hunched over, exhausted, bitter, fading.

“We die, and the Ever will not fall.”

Her face cut through the crew on the deck, and my body felt. Warmth, peace—my beacon, my home. Livia was worn, a little bloody, but there was a wildness in those eyes, like the fiercest sea, like she was the true power here.

“It won’t fall,” I repeated, holding her gaze when she was stopped by a thick arm of a crewman at the steps. “For it has its queen.”

Livia shook her head. She struggled against the arm holding her back, crying out my name.

I turned back to Larsson, shoulders heaving. “Its queen is why I will not stop. She is why I will never let you live.”

“Pathetic,” Larsson said with enough disdain he meant it. “Your life for a bitch without a true crown.”

I blocked a swift strike from Larsson’s sword. He’d drawn a dagger from his boot and cut across my middle. I slammed my hilt against the side of his head, forcing him to back away, to give me enough time to stand straighter.

Larsson had enough wounds, and my skin held plenty of my blood, that I could kill him with should I wrap my arms around him. But to survive the endless strikes he’d level against me before the poison took hold?

Not even Murdock would be fast enough to stop me from bleeding out.

Perhaps this was always meant to be my fate. To die fighting for a new Ever. An amends for the hatred I’d leveled against her folk all these turns, for the destruction sea fae caused when we brought war.

The gift of the sea to a queen, to her people, who would tend to it with honor and mercy.

Livia’s cries turned to pleas, hardly audible under the crash of thunder. I took up my blades in a firmer grip, resigned to end this here.

A final stand.

My song was low, lost under my breath, but the sea tossed another wave at Larsson’s back. He swung around, trying to call it off. Whatever voice he’d stolen was not strong enough, or he was not swift enough. The crash of the wave knocked him backward. He landed with his shoulders and head hanging off the shattered edge of the deck.

Ten paces, that was all that remained between us. My movements were stiff and haggard, but I closed the distance and rammed the point of my blade through Larsson’s leg.

He roared his pain, managing to toss his fists at my ribs when I straddled his waist. A wave of violent delight rushed through my veins when the splintered edges of the ship sliced his shoulders and neck, the more I pressed him down.

Larsson groaned and tried to buck me off, the blade shredding his leg.

I scraped my palm over my teeth, placing it against gashes across his chest. He let out a throaty whimper when the poison took hold. Murky veins slithered up the sides of his neck. Blood-tinged foam clotted in his mouth.

I leaned closer, my face hovered over his. “I would tell you that your bones will adorn her neck.”

Slowly, I began to sing, pulling back the poison. A swift death, that wouldn’t do. Larsson shuddered, gasping when the poison leeched from his blood.

“But,” I went on, my voice like the threat of the storm above, “I think you’ll be better suited as her crown. As you said, she’s not been given a proper one yet.”

Blood stained the deck beneath us. Larsson shoved against my face, trying to throw me aside. I bent his body over the ledge, taking note of what was slowly rising beneath us from the sea floor.

His eyes were glassy, hateful, yet there was a heaviness in them, a glimmer of the man I thought was loyal, the one I dared consider a friend even in my loneliest turns.

“You failed,” I said, voice harsh. “Today you’ll die alone, unloved, and despised. I will send your flesh to the Otherworld, cursed and marred, so the gods know what a wretch you are. They will never welcome you into their seas.”

“Blood . . . Bloodsinger,” he grunted hoarsely, pleading.

Another drop of blood burned his veins with poison. I let it flow farther, watching as the sharp point of a cliff slowly grew and grew from the sea, drawing closer and closer.

The shudder was so faint, I doubted anyone could feel Valen moving the earth. It was such a slow ascent, offering time to say the words, the promises, the threats, I needed Larsson Bonekeeper to hear. As though Valen Ferus had been in this place himself and knew these moments were mine to claim.

When the whites of Larsson’s eyes were smoky gray from the poison, I sang it back. He slumped, weak, fading.

“Tell our father,” I whispered, “I will proudly continue to disappoint him.”

I took hold of Larsson’s face between my palms, aiming over the point of the rising shard of rock. I waited until his eyes fluttered open, until he held my gaze. I wanted to be the last face he saw.

“Go to the hells, you bastard.”

With a fierce shove, I smashed the back of his skull over the tip of the rocky point. Like gliding through the surface of the sea, the stone sliced through his scalp, the bone, and pierced out the front of his brow.

Each breath burned as if torn from my lungs. I couldn’t pull my hands away. Larsson’s lifeless eyes were coated in blood, his mouth parted in stun, his skull mutilated and unrecognizable, and I was frozen.

Only once gentle hands curled around my waist did I lean back.

“Serpent.” Livia wrapped her arms around my shoulders, pressing my back to her chest.

“Songbird. My . . . my blood.” I swallowed, trembling. My body was soaked in poison.

“I promise not to eat your blood but let me . . . let me just touch you.”

One of my palms curled around her wrists, clinging to her—gods—feeling that she was real, alive, that she was warm and with me.

Her lips met the side of my head. She held them there, soft sobs against my skin. “It’s over, Erik. It’s over.”

I swallowed, blinking through blood and rain.

Over.

The Ever was won.


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