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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 52

THE SERPENT

On the morrow we would sail, once again, through the Chasm, but there were final alterations to make in the threads that once kept the Ever a dreary, vicious land.

A week after the coronation, the courtyard in front of the palace was packed with folk from the township, curious, no doubt, why the king and queen summoned the noble houses and the crew of the Ever.

One mention of my plans to Livia after we’d abandoned her own celebration and were breathless and tangled in our bed, she’d practically split through her skin with anticipation. There was no turning back, and in midnight conversations with my songbird, we’d added more to our upheaval.

I would never let on, but a strange disquiet prickled through my insides. I’d crowned a queen, fought a war, gave refuge to a stoic elven princess—but these changes would impact each house. Every isle, every edge of the Ever Sea.

As if she sensed the unease, Livia leaned in and whispered, “You are making the right moves, Erik. I think your father would be wholly enraged.”

A grin, sincere and wide, broke over my mouth. “Your words help, Songbird.”

The crowds hushed when I rose at the head of the courtyard. “At sunrise we return our new allies to the earth realms with gratitude and an alliance that ought never have been broken.”

Applause and grunts of approval rippled through the crowd.

“Before we bid farewell, we have boons to grant and titles to bestow. First, the crew of the Ever Ship.”

Men, gruff and stern, wove through the crowd until more than three dozen men were aligned below me. I didn’t know how my words would be received.

“I have thought a great deal about the notion of loyalty in these trying weeks. In my life, I have witnessed a king demand the death of a noble family to prove loyalty. I have witnessed forced bonds to demand it.” I hesitated. No one moved. No one seemed to breathe. “I am honored to sail amongst such a crew as you, but blood bonds have secured the crew thus far. I offer to end those bonds.”

A few murmurs rose at that. Some of the crew shifted about, uncomfortable.

“It would be my honor to sail with you, not from a bond, but from loyalty from us all.” I swallowed. “I do not want to be a king like Thorvald.”

A few startled looks were expected. I didn’t stop.

“You each have a place on the Ever Ship, but of your own will. I would be honored to have your fealty on those decks, but I will not force it any longer.”

Silence, thick as a hot wind, crossed the courtyard.

Until Hans Skulleater cleared his throat to the point it was more like a wet hacking cough. “Can’t be speakin’ for these sods, but as for I, well, I’ll be keepin’ me bond, King Erik, if you please.”

Scar uttered the same, even chastising me for considering removing his blood bond. One by one the Ever Crew chanted the tune of the ship, low, eerie, powerful.

A man he’s not, we work, we rot . . .

“We’re stayin’ aboard,” Skulleater repeated. “We’re stayin’ with our king and our lovey of the ship.”

The brute winked at Livia. I tripped over words, so I said nothing. With a nod, I mutely bid them to return to their places.

“Next—” My voice was a rough scratch. “Sewell Fleshripper.”

“Little eel.” His hands were clasped behind his back. Sewell was trimmed and stood straighter. Without his overgrown beard and tousled hair, I could see Celine and Gavyn in his features.

“You were unjustly punished for a crime that was never there. I return to you the title of Lord, the same title your son still holds. You are to be given the respect, the dignity, and the honor you’ve always deserved. As such, you are free to live within your lands of the House of Bones unscathed. There is no quarrel with the crown and Sewell Fleshripper. Your mate will be honored and remembered in the royal city and across the Ever, never forgotten.”

Celine covered her mouth and leaned into Gavyn, whose face was unmoving. Sewell, on the other hand, beamed. “Sweet words, little eel.”

“Overdue words,” I said, facing the crowd. “Should anyone try to enact former punishments, they will fall beneath a blade instead.”

I called forth Lord Joron and Avaline. Joron gawked a bit at Sewell as he strode past. It was no small thing to unravel a vicious order from Thorvald and Harald, but the mood of the crowd was light, even hopeful.

“Lord Joron. You fulfilled your end of a command, though it does not escape me that you would not have done so if not for threats against you.”

“I would argue, My King,” Joron said, “that there is no way to know such things.”

“You have little respect for the title of queen,” I said through my teeth. “You disgraced your own people in your house by allowing them to suffer so fiercely. But there is another within the House of Tides who willingly risked for the benefit of our people. Lady Avaline.”

Joron’s daughter’s eyes went wide, pale as a morning sun. Her hands shot to her gown, clasping the woolen skirt tightly, like she might want to toss it over her head and disappear.

“The nobles who preside over the houses of the Ever Seas are called with honor, required to protect and value their people.” I paused for good measure, and perhaps to see Joron sweat a bit. “You have proven you are the right choice to lead the House of Tides.”

“My King,” Joron hissed.

“Silence.” I curled my lip, flashing the points of my teeth. “I wasn’t finished. I strip your father of his title and give it to you. Lady of the House of Tides. Your word will be trusted at council, and within your isles.”

“You cannot demote me from my gods-given seat,” Joron seethed.

“There is no demotion,” I said calmly. “Your blood remains the ruler of the House of Tides. Your daughter is merely the mouthpiece. If she accepts, that is.”

Avaline offered a tentative look at her father. Joron’s pointed nose wrinkled, and his thin lips curled. A silent threat, but now would be when we saw what Avaline could do when given the shove.

After a drawn pause she blinked up to me. “I accept, My King. Gratefully.”

“And should a hair atop her head be harmed,” Livia said, glaring at Joron. “Know that our suspicions will fall to you.”

“A final title is due,” I went on, holding out an arm for Livia to join me at my side. “One that was heartily agreed upon by both king and queen. Celine Tidecaller.”

Celine jolted, a look of confusion on her features, but she peeled away from Gavyn, stepping into the sunlight.

“Celine,” Livia said, voice soft. “You have been a true ally, a friend when I thought I had none in the Ever. You have been loyal to the crew, to your family, and the king all your life.”

“Like your father, you did not deserve to be punished in such a way, Tidecaller,” I offered. “I would trust you with my life, and I have, more than once. It will be difficult to part with you from the crew.”

Celine gasped and looked wary. “Erik, I-I don’t want, please, I don’t want to be off the crew.”

“I’m afraid it must be,” I went on.

“No.” Celine cast her gaze to Livia. “Why?”

I let out a heavy breath. “You’ll be too occupied with your own.”

“My own crew?” Celine tilted her head.

“Lord Hesh,” I said, voice lifted over the crowd. “Was a traitor to the Ever. He died a traitor’s death but has left the House of Blades without a lord.” I used my chin to gesture at Celine. “Or, like the House of Tides and Mists, another lady. If you agree.”

It looked as though I’d rammed a fist through Celine’s middle. She curled forward, eyes wide, lips parted. When she came about, she hurried to straighten and lift her gaze to mine. “You wish me to be . . .”

“The Lady of Blades,” Livia finished. “Yes. There is no one who fights fiercer for the Ever, Celine Tidecaller. There is no one so clever and formidable and kind as you. All attributes that would suit a new High Farer of the Ever Seas.”

“Bleeding gods.” Celine dragged her fingers through her long waves. “Are you damn certain? You know what this means?”

I scoffed. “You have a title. A house.”

“It means I’m not wearing any more damn dresses to your revels. I’ll wear whatever I please.” Celine let out a loud, piercing laugh. “It means I get to tell you when you’re being a mighty stupid king.”

“You do that anyway.”

“Ah, but now I can shout it across the council table. Same for you.” Celine pointed a finger at Gavyn.

Her brother frowned but turned away before it could shift to a grin.

“I’m assuming you accept?”

“Aye, My King.” Celine’s chin quivered. She bowed. “Thank you.”

“King Erik!” From the back line of the Ever Crew, Stormbringer shoved his way to the front.

I groaned, unwilling to stop bloodshed should Sewell attack.

“What are you doing?” Celine said, a bite to her tone.

Stormbringer ignored her, looking to me and Livia. “If it be all the same to you, King, and you, Queen, I’d like to take you up on that offer of riddin’ me of a blood bond to the royal ship.”

Unexpected. Truth be told, it wrenched a little. “You wish to remain aboard, but unbonded?”

“I been sailing the fine Ever Ship nigh twenty turns, but I’m now hoping I might sail beneath different colors, a new banner.” Stormbringer looked to Celine. “If the Lady of Blades would have a wretch as me aboard, that is.”

“Well,” Livia whispered, a smug sort of smile on her face. “I like this turn about.”

Celine’s skin flushed. She attempted to stand unmoving, as any lord or lady of a house would, but her hands gave her up—flicking and twitching at her sides.

“I’ll release you of your bond, Stormbringer,” I said. “But as for the rest, that’ll be up to the Lady of Blades.”

For half a breath, Celine studied Stormbringer’s searching eyes. Gingerly, she took his hand. “Be honored to have you aboard, Finn Stormbringer.”

They stepped back, settling beside a discomfited Sewell.

I called for the earth fae. “The Ever will always be open to you and your folk. No door will be closed, no table will not welcome you whenever you enter our seas. Mine most of all. And it is my honor to thank House Eriksson of the Alver clans—”

“Finally got it right,” Jonas muttered.

“To accept a bond as you did to defend our kingdom,” I said, throat all at once rather tight. “I hope you know it will be reciprocated. Always.”

“You should know as well.” Jonas offered a quick grin. “You’re not so bad, Bloodsinger.”


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