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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 5

THE SONGBIRD

Beautifully carved beams and rafters lined each corridor. The runner along the hall was mystical and intriguing, with scenes of cliffs at night, brilliant purple blooms against the moonlight, and midnight seas beating against a shoreline.

Skadi kept her chin lifted, her pace like a dance over the floors. Regal, but in the twitch of her jaw was her unease.

The room was wide and oddly terraced in an upper level, with a long wooden table on a lower level. Half the walls were stone, as though this part of the palace was built into the side of the dark cliffs outside.

A river stone inglenook billowed with the savory scent of woodsmoke and ash. Some walls were made from the natural rock, others were insulated with clay and soft lumber speckled in rain-soaked moss.

Along the blackwood table, runners with blue frosted peaks and bind runes I couldn’t read in the design were laid out on the surface. A feast of simple smoked fish and tart jellies piled on silver plates, and a simple candelabra flickered from ebony wax candles overhead.

Seated at the far end of the table, a man with a blue tricorn atop his head scooped mashed roots and fleshy bits of fish into his mouth.

My heart burned for Erik. He had to know. He needed to be warned.

“Lord Hesh.”

Hesh, the lord over the House of Blades, slurped another bite. A warrior-strong body, with an impossibly square jaw, the bastard was more ogre than fae. “Earth fae.”

“I believe you know me as Queen.”

Hesh laughed, deep and menacing. “I think we both know that title was always doomed to be short-lived, earth fae.”

I clamped my teeth to keep my breaths from coming in short, stilted gasps. He had no fear, no trepidation for Erik’s retaliation. What the hells did it mean? Was the whole of the Ever against my serpent?

Somewhere in the numbness of my heart, terror split through to the surface.

This fear takes your thoughts, and I will not tell you not to let it, but I will remind you of who you are. For you are a formidable foe.

Erik proved his trust in me with his words and actions. I could die here. If that was my fate, I would do so protecting the Ever King, standing for him, fighting for the life we’d dreamed of living together.

It was a beautiful dream and deserved a fight, even to the death.

From a back door, Larsson entered. My stomach twisted. Once a friend, once a man who’d laughed with us, who’d helped rescue me from a sea singer, now was cruel and wretched. His handsome grin split over his stubbled chin, and his dark hair was mussed around his face.

“Hello, Lady.” Larsson took a high-backed chair at the head of the table. “How glad I am you’re awake, though I’m disappointed I was not informed sooner.”

His gaze shot to Skadi. The woman did nothing but pop one shoulder in a lazy shrug.

“So indifferent?” Larsson clicked his tongue. “We’re nearly kin.”

“Not yet,” was all Skadi said.

With more bluster, the same doors which Larsson had used clattered against the wall. More guards, more swords entered, and between them was the elven prince, and on his arm, Fione.

The sea witch was horribly beautiful. Pale hair slicked and knotted at the base of her neck. She wore a black gown of satin and lace and moved as through a gentle tide.

“It is such a pleasure to see earth fae in a proper place,” said the sea witch, nodding at me as she accepted Larsson’s hand. “At our mercy.”

“Clever, Fione.” My fists clenched. “Now that you’ve finished pining to be a king’s bedmate, you’ve had time to practice your wit.”

“Come now, Lady,” Larsson said once Fione was seated at the table. “You berate Fione when you are much the same.”

“I am queen.”

“You are a delusion,” Larsson said. “One my younger brother conjured in his own mind all so he might believe someone actually wanted him for exactly who he is.”

The way Larsson flouted my connection to the Ever King was astonishing. He’d spent weeks with Erik and me. He knew our devotion.

With a wave of his hand, he gestured for a chair. “Sit. We have a great deal to discuss. I see you’ve already met the princess of this isle, but have you met her betrothed? Prince Arion, my cousin.”

Larsson’s lip curled as though I ought to be impressed. I was not, only puzzled.

“Betrothed?” I whispered at Skadi.

The princess shuddered, but simply turned away, gaze on the floor. I would get no more aid from her, at least not surrounded by the others. Skadi believed knowledge of this place was how I would find a way to be free. I took to heart the notion of it. The more I knew of Larsson Bonekeeper, the more I could use against him.

“You are elven,” I said, voice a whisper.

Larsson plucked a wet, green fruit from a platter in the center of the table. “Half, yes.”

“Erik . . .” I swallowed the pain of his name on my tongue. “Erik didn’t know?”

“No one but Fione knew.” Larsson wiped his fingers on a linen cloth. “I am the son of the fallen Ever King and a noble elven woman from the Ljosalfar clan, the light—”

“I know the clans. Skadi explained them,” I said abruptly.

“Quite a powerful combination, wouldn’t you say?”

Anger I’d come to expect burned low in my gut, but now I could hardly stomach it. “Yet, you have no sea voice.”

Larsson slapped a hand on the edge of the table. A bark of laughter followed. Arion blew out his lips and tossed back a goblet of a sweet-smelling drink. Next, Hesh. Chortle and snort and guffaw. The blade lord sounded more like a sea hog than a man.

“I have a voice, Lady. I merely forgot to reveal it.” Larsson waved his fingers from the side of his head. “Must’ve slipped my mind. Without Fione blocking him, I’ve few doubts that Heartwalker would’ve felt every desire and learned the truth.”

A cinch burrowed in my chest at the mention of Tait. “He was your cousin too.”

“True.” Larsson’s grin faded. “I didn’t mind him, not really. Another reason I hated killing him, but he is so damn loyal to Bloodsinger, it’s for the best. He never did find out my voice. Amusing how Thorvald’s sons both carry a gift of blood. Bonekeeper might be the adopted title, but my gift does not lie in the bones.”

My tone was clipped. “So proud, yet you admit to nothing.”

“Elven blood is interesting,” Larsson went on. “My cousin takes from the light, like his future bride takes from her darkness. Being both sea fae and elven, well, I take from the blood.”

“Take what?” I despised the tremble of my chin.

“Abilities. Voices. Magic.” Larsson’s brows waggled, like I ought to be delighted.

“You steal the magic of the blood.”

“I do. The more blood I devour, the longer I can steal another’s ability. Seems to work best on sea fae.” He lifted the chain of bones he kept around his neck. “Death is the best way to get the most blood. After a time, I began collecting the bones. A sort of memento.”

Gods, he was deranged. “I wonder how your elven folk trust you not to drink their magic away.”

“Alliances have been signed in blood.” Larsson frowned. “But even without, I would not harm Arion or his court. Or even his betrothed. We’re kin.”

“And what is your brother?”

He looked away, either stumped or ashamed. “An unfortunate bit of collateral in the way of my crown. Save your anger for Thorvald, Lady. He is the one to blame.”

Doubtless, Larsson would never see himself as the villain. “So, what is your plan, then?”

“To claim my birthright. I already told you this on the boat.”

“You cannot take the blood crown. You cannot take the Ever. Erik will not allow it.”

The crown of the Ever King was no ordinary crown. Brutal, like the Ever, should one outside the bloodline of the direct heirs don the crown, it would burn and fester on their skin.

Larsson’s face hardened. “Bloodsinger will truly have no choice. I’ve but one task remaining before the wards against me are gone, and I will be able to take the blood crown without injury.”

“Wards against you?”

“A loving gift from my father.” Larsson’s jaw pulsed. “Seemed he preferred the notion of a weaker heir like Bloodsinger, so he made certain I would never be able to return to the Ever.”

Fione sniffed. “What a fool.”

“Aye, that he was,” Larsson said. “We’ve been breaking through Thorvald’s wards for turns now. Had I known I would’ve needed to wait for that damn Chasm to complete the final piece, I might’ve just slaughtered Bloodsinger long ago and taken a chance that the crown would naturally pass to me. Would’ve saved me a great many turns of his ruthless tantrums and obsession with earth fae.”

I needed to get off this damn isle. I needed to find Erik. One palm pressed to my heart, I tried to summon the heat, the comfort. Serpent, please hear me.

Emptiness answered.

“So, you needed the Chasm to open?”

“I needed you as much as Bloodsinger.” Larsson’s eyes heated.

“Ironic, isn’t it?” Arion’s cheeks flushed from ale and amusement. He refilled his cup from the ewer and took a long drink.

I blinked back to Larsson. “Where do the elven play a role in all this?”

Arion seemed wholly content to scheme with Larsson, but Skadi, she did not want this.

“Arion and I grew up together. My mother was the niece of his father, king of the light clans. At first, he tired of my constant talk of claiming my birthright.”

“Constant?” Arion wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “It was obsession.”

“With the wards keeping Thorvald’s firstborn away, it was likely my desire would never happen,” Larsson said. “Until Thorvald died. I suppose I should thank your father someday.”

My jaw set. “What good did that do?”

“Barriers keeping the firstborn of the Ever King out of the sea realms weakened, and I began to study how to weaken the rest.” Larsson waved a hand. “You don’t need to know all the details, Lady, but I found my way back. Once I did, I think my cousin, at last, saw the merit, and he began his own campaign to be king.”

Skadi drew in a sharp breath and closed her eyes.

“What did you do?” I looked at the elven prince. “Kill your father?”

“My father lives, fae.”

“Arion is positioned to be king over all elven clans,” Larsson said. “But the rise of elven kings is rather cumbersome.”

“Well, we must prove we have what it takes to lead.” Arion winked, losing himself again in his cups.

Larsson went on. “Victory in battle is required of all elven heirs.”

“So, he helps you win the Ever through battle and earns his place as king.”

“There is more to his ascension over both clans.” Larsson looked to Skadi. “But it is inevitable.”

“Skadi,” I said. “Are you forced into this betrothal?”

She lifted her gaze. “You do not understand our ways, fae.”

“That’s right.” Arion rose. “Skadinia will be my kin; it has been arranged for turns.”

“Nothing was set, and true negotiations were not to be had for turns to come,” Skadi muttered, but the way she grimaced I wondered if she’d meant to speak at all.

“When fate opens the way, chridhe, it would be foolish to ignore the chance.” Arion turned his cold gaze to me. “There is unique power within kin bonds, and when she is truly mine, she will want for nothing. All our agreements will be honored, if she is but loyal to her king. So, cease with your attempts to convince her otherwise.”

Hesh rose from the table, dabbing his mouth with a linen. “It is time for me to return. The sun has set.”

“You know not to be seen,” Larsson said, voice low.

“I know how to sail my ship without the notice of the palace.”

“Yes, but you don’t know where Bloodsinger has gone.”

Erik wasn’t at the palace? Doubtless he was searching for us, but Hesh would now search for him. Serpent? Please answer.

Nothing.

“My men will find him,” said Hesh.

“Like last time?” Larsson glared at the blade lord. “Remember? When you supplied your men, and the earth fae stabbed them with roots.”

I swallowed. Gods, Hesh had been involved in the assassins who’d attacked at the palace.

“A mishap that won’t happen again,” said Hesh, and he quit the hall in a thunder of heavy steps that echoed down the corridor.

Skadi spoke of the marked being able to breach Fione’s wards. Hesh must’ve been the marked, yet I saw no hint of any rune or talisman.

“Hesh was not pleased with your bout of brutality, Lady.” Larsson winked and took a bite of fish off his plate.

“Then my life is utterly complete,” I retorted.

Larsson chuckled. “I must say, I did not anticipate the heartbond to aid in healing my brother that day. I’d even dropped a few sleeping herbs in Murdock’s wine to ensure he would be worthless to the king.”

My heart split in two. The day of the attack, Larsson had looked so flustered, so ill with worry. Gods, now it was clear he’d only fretted that his plan would fail.

Larsson clapped his hands. “It is because of that heartbond that I brought you here, Lady. In fact, it is the whole reason I needed the Chasm to open. Gods, how surprising it was to realize what I needed was an earth fae princess.”

“Not near as surprising as how cowardly you turned out to be.”

“I doubt you’ll feel that way soon enough.”

A bitter scoff slid over my tongue. “I so look forward to the moment you realize what sort of monster you’ve unleashed. Erik will destroy you, and, gods, I hope he takes his time.”

“And I look forward to when you’re no longer so enamored by Bloodsinger.” In swift movements, Larsson rose, had a hand wrapped around my braid, then yanked me down until he forced me onto my knees.

Soft spoken and direct as she’d been, Skadi cried out. “What are you doing? You said you only needed her kept at a distance. You said you weren’t going to hurt her.”

One snap of his fingers, and Arion had elven guards surrounding the princess, holding her steady. Still, she cried out, pleaded.

“You’re going to take this, Skadinia,” Arion said. “It will not kill her, so stop fumbling about.”

Skadi’s eyes bulged. “No. I won’t. I won’t use it for pain. You know what happens.”

He cupped her chin. “These are our enemies, and they hold a power that gives them an advantage over us. This is our way to claim this battle, a way that two born of Elven blood will hold thrones and is for the benefit of your kin. You must understand there is pain that is used for a greater good.”

Skadi shook her head, whimpering.

Fione moved in front of me. “Expose her heart.”

Larsson didn’t hesitate before slicing a small knife down the neckline of the nightdress until the swells of my breasts and tops of my nipples were exposed. “No wonder my brother kept you all to himself, Lady. Lovely.”

Fione huffed and hurried to add her pungent herbs to her bowl. The same knife carved down the cleft of my breasts. I screamed and tried to pull away without causing the blade to shift and stab my heart.

“Arion, do not allow this on our lands! Do not bring hatred here!” Skadi cried.

“Do it now, or I take this isle by force, Skadinia.”

“And you will destroy the bonds of trust and kin,” she seethed. “You will be a wretched king from the start should you take the shadow clan before the proper time.”

Arion tightened his grip on her chin, voice low. “I will do everything it takes to secure my birthright. You understand?”

“You cannot harm—”

“If I am victorious, what will it matter if he lives or dies?” Arion shouted. “I will, by blood, have earned the position of sovereign of both clans; I will have you.”

“I’ll never agree.”

Arion sneered. “I will be your king; you will not have a choice. But refuse to aid me and my kin in this battle, and I will not soon forget your resistance to your future king.”

The prince had someone he was using against Skadi. Clearer than ever, the woman was a prisoner in her own realm.

“Hesitate longer, woman,” Larsson said, “and you will be marked a traitor against us. Find the bond and take it.”

Fione stroked a delicate finger down my cheek. “It is time to tear that heartbond from your body.”

No. Death did not await me here. They were after my bond.

“I detest you,” Skadi said, but around her shoulders, billows of satin mist coiled over her fingers and the blue of her eyes flashed like silver caps on a night sea.

Cruel hands wrenched me to the side. My bare chest was hovered over a mortar, blood dripping onto the clay.

Fear throttled my airway. I am Livia . . . I am Livia Ferus . . .

Cold, harsh and consuming, dug into my skin around the wound.

“That’s better,” Arion said.

Through the blur of tears, I could make out the red of his hair hunched over a weeping Skadi. Black mists slithered over the tiles like the ghosts of fallen serpents until their chill coiled around my arms, my wrists, then dove into my heart.

Fione added a thick, tar-like substance to the bowl and my blood, chanting a strange spell that guided the darkness to scoop blood into the mortar.

“Steal it away, elven,” the sea witch said. “Then I will ensure no new bond from the House of Kings can be fashioned.”

Gods, I hoped Erik knew how fiercely I’d loved him. So short a time, yet he’d been the center of my existence. I hoped he would not lose himself when this was over.

More blood was dragged from the wound. More mists tugged and yanked at my sinews, like cold fingers massaging my heart.

I writhed and thrashed until Larsson cursed me again and gripped my hair to the roots, holding me steady.

“The pain will be over soon, Lady,” he crooned. “In truth, I doubt you’ll feel much distress over Bloodsinger at all after this. You might even want me to end him for what he did to you.”

Tendrils of darkness dug into my breastbone. Whimpers and sobs followed from across the room. Murmured apologies, mutterings of fear. Skadi did not want this. The shadows threaded through bone and flesh, dark needles and thread.

Unable to hold in the pain, I cried out. Unseen claws ripped at my heart until I was certain I’d bleed out. Larsson flipped me onto my back, straddling my hips to keep me confined. Breasts exposed, blood on my chest, I’d never felt so trapped, so suffocated.

Time did not exist. All I knew was the agony, the sorrow. Like poison ripping every joyful moment from my heart, such despondency had never existed before.

Tar and blood in the bowl puffed out a strange smoke until nothing but bits of ash remained, and the pain ceased.

Sweat beaded on the sides of my face. Breaths came rough and sharp.

“It’s gone.” Fione studied the ash, flat and devoid of any care. “It can’t be formed again.”

The same echo of sorrow took hold when the skin below the crook of my elbow was red and irritated, but . . . there was no bind rune. The mark of the House of Kings was gone. They’d robbed me of the bond formed so many turns ago when I’d fallen for the somber boy in a prison cell.

Whatever pieces of Erik had threaded through my heart on that night, now they’d been slaughtered.


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