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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 7

THE SONGBIRD

Tears mingled with blood. I grappled for my bodice, desperate to cover my body. My shoulders shook in silent sobs. An ache bloomed through my veins, unyielding. Hot agony, unlike anything I’d known before.

An end, a destruction. A death.

“Skadinia! Stop.” Arion shouted. Wooden legs of his chair skittered across the floor, and steel pulled from leather sheaths.

Blurred through salt and pain, still I made out Skadi’s shape. Beringed fingers splayed, coils of darkness embraced her palms, her arms. Not a shadow, something more. Sea spray beneath a moonless night.

“Stop? You were the one who told me to reach for pain,” she raged. “Perhaps you do not wish me to feel.”

“You’re wrong,” Arion insisted. “Has he sheltered you so fiercely that you did not know pain is due in battle? You cannot go heartless when each enemy cries out in agony. We are fighting for a stronger future of all elven. Why don’t you see this?”

Arion lifted his arms, matching Skadi’s stance. Wicks of candlelight flickered. Flames leaned toward the prince, bent—leapt away. Arion’s hands were as fire.

“The power in her veins was needed, woman,” Larsson seethed. “Your world is secure and unthreatened when the crown of the seas rests on my head. Elven folk will soon hold power in every realm. Why do you resist?”

Blue rage, hot and sharp, burned in Skadi’s eyes. She did not spare a look at Larsson, her ire remained on her fellow elven. “I know what becomes of me when a kinship bond is formed with him. Do you think I am so foolish not to know you will make me your blade? You will have me wallow in death.”

My mind spun. I did not understand what was happening, only that something had overtaken Skadi. Something about her mists had shifted her into this cruel, venomous woman.

“That is not true,” Arion said, but his lip curled like he was more frustrated than concerned. “You will be my wife, Skadinia. Our affinities will serve each other.”

“You have no desire to serve me, Arion.”

His gaze hardened. “Continue to betray our folk, and I’ll have no choice but to keep you numb.”

Skadi’s grin was cruel, frightening. Empty. “Then we agree—I would rather remain heartless than feel the repulsion of calling you husband.”

Without warning, Skadi flung her arms. Mists met fire when Arion swung back.

“You are breaking our agreement,” Arion said, a threat in his tone.

“You are the one who fractured it by this torture. Torture of an innocent, Arion. This is not the way to your birthright.”

“What do you know of birthrights?” Arion struck again.

Singed skin broke from Skadi’s sleeve. She cried out and doubled over, still entwined in dark salt and mist. When her chin tilted, the gleam in her eyes was something rotten—hate and bloodlust—a look that did not belong on features as hers.

“Skadi,” Arion hissed, cutting her name in half. “Don’t. Step out of the dark, you’ve wallowed too long in your tantrum.”

“I thought you just said I ought to remain numb. Isn’t this what you wanted? A complacent, unbothered wife?”

More than ribbons of mist, a burst of darkness, a cloud, a creature, erupted over her figure, splaying like dark wings around the room. Arion shielded his face. Larsson and Fione ducked beneath the table. Even the few elven guards bracketed against the wall.

Whatever power rolled in the mist, when it touched me, it did nothing fearsome. An embrace, cold and shocking. Then it was gone. A dark shadow of a creature, spilling from the doorway, the windows, the floorboards.

When it was over, I raised my head, breathless.

Nothing was terribly out of place. Only a faint hint of brine in the air. But Skadi had grown still and stoic. The light in her eyes was gone.

Elven guards seized her arms at the command of Arion. Only callous apathy masked her pleasant features when they led her away. She offered not a single glance over her shoulder, as though nothing bothered her in the least.

“What are the consequences of that outburst?” Larsson shoved against the table, rattling the goblets.

Arion wiped sweat off his brow. “I don’t know. But she won’t be trouble any longer. She’s lost to it for now.”

“Keep her that way,” Larsson hissed.

“Do not think I plan to fail here, cousin,” Arion bit back.

With a grunt, Larsson shouted at the last remaining guard to return me to my chamber. Numb, in pain, I went without struggle.

Like Skadi, I did not look back.


Alone, when the moon was high, I pressed my forehead against the cool window. A new shift had been placed on the bed by the time we’d returned to the room. I’d promptly changed, desperate to hide away the truth of what happened.

My palm massaged the place over my heart, a constant burn that hadn’t faded. The way Larsson spoke, it was as though he’d expected some resentment for Erik to fill the hole.

There was only a suffocating sort of longing.

One I was certain would fracture whatever was left of my heart and soon take me to the hall of the gods. Then, there was a new pain for a woman I hardly knew. Skadi. There’d been action in her cloak of mist, a plan she’d risked to enact.

I could not help but think it was for my benefit.

Now, by the stony look on her face, it had harmed her. My soul ached for her. Whatever the mists had done, Skadi was truly a prisoner now.

The air was colder, and a smoky flavor hung low and heavy, like the first frosts were approaching. Through the haze, winged insects flitted around night blooms outside the window. Flashes of gold coursed over their iridescent wings. Sun wings. I traced the flight pattern of one, two, watching as they bounced about the glass, as though summoning me, trusting me.

All I had were Skadi’s words, vague and indirect, but there was a burning within me, one that had me convinced the magic in the soil of Natthaven would shield me if I could break free of these walls.

Stars brightened the Ever Sea in the distance, open and endless. Home.

Without warning, a wet sob slid from my chest. I held my fist in front of my mouth to muffle the sounds and slid down the wall until my knees were hugged to my chest.

The door swung open.

“All well, Lady?” Larsson stood in the doorway, his dark hair free and wild about his angled face. “My men thought they heard screaming, thought they heard someone attacking you.”

“The only one who’s attacked me thus far is you.” I pressed my back against the windowsill, slowly rising to my feet.

“Surely you know this isn’t exactly personal to you.” Larsson crowded me against the wall and stroked a fingertip down my cheek, laughing when I wrenched my face away.

My stomach twisted. “You won’t get to Erik.”

Larsson frowned. “Still lingering affection for him?”

“More than affection, you bastard.” I spat in his face.

Larsson lifted his arm, ready to strike, but stalled when I flinched. He sighed, the twist of a grin returned. He tilted my chin with his thumb. “You know, your blood serves more than one purpose. I thought the lotus trade would be our answer to heal the marks of the darkening.”

“Marks of your use of dark magic.”

“There are times when dark spells must be used against dark spells. You think it is natural for a kingdom to be warded against its true king? Thorvald used wicked spell casts to keep me out. I had no choice.”

What a creature he was. The sort who would never shoulder his own darkness. Erik was brutal, even wicked at times, but he never laid his cruelty at the feet of others. He bore it like a banner in his words and actions.

“House Skurk proved helpful for a time, pirating many crates of blooms to test, but Lucien had to get greedy.”

The skin on my arms prickled. “You arranged for Erik to kill him?”

Larsson chuckled. “Clever way to tie up loose ends, don’t you think? Fione finished off the rest of his brothers with a rather costly bottle of seaflower wine. Those sods didn’t even pause to consider the risks of an unmarked bottle before serving it at their next household feast.”

Lucien Skurk had been a vile creature, and knowing the pain he’d leveled on Skondell, I was glad Erik tortured him. But to think an entire hall of the Skurk household fell prey to Larsson’s whims caused my fingers to tremble at my sides. “You’re a wretch.”

“Consider me wounded,” he said with a heavy dose of irony. “Once I saw the mark of the House of Kings on your skin, I knew your blood would have the power to clear the blight and break the final ward over the blood crown.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t need to. All you must know is that little bond with Bloodsinger was exactly what I needed.” He splayed one palm on the wall, caging me with his body. “Now that it’s over, I admit I rather like having you all to myself.”

“Don’t touch me.” I shoved back. The motion only caused him to laugh and press his body against me, forcing me to slide against the hard planes of muscle on his chest.

“A king can touch what he likes, Lady.”

“You should be so proud,” I gritted out. “Depending on spells and tricks to take a throne when it was given to Erik as a tiny boy. Who is the pathetic one?”

One step back, and Larsson’s palm clapped over my cheek. Pain lanced up my temple, down my throat, and a derisive snort followed. A mocking sort of laughter peeled from my chest despite the pain.

“You are weak,” I said, trying to steady my voice. “You caused the darkening, lost the ability to control it, and . . . and needed Erik Bloodsinger to find the way to finish your entire scheme because your own father . . . never wanted you in his kingdom.”

ShutUp.” Larsson’s fists tightened at his sides.

“The crown of the Ever was never yours, and you know it,” I went on, my voice a near hiss. “Now, Erik will send you to the hells, then drag you back, all to return you with fewer limbs than before.”

Larsson hit me again. A show of a weak man when a bold woman stumped his stupid words. That was all he was, a weak man.

For a few breaths, he held my glare. Hatred burned like flames against a pitch night in his dark eyes. Then, slowly, his lips curved into a wretched grin that sent horrid pin pricks up my arms.

“Bloodsinger will lose his mind over you,” Larsson said. “He is rather possessive, isn’t he?”

With a mighty shove, he pinned my back to the wall again, knocking the air from my chest, and clapped a hand over my mouth.

Panic flooded like ice in my veins.

“Bloodsinger sees you as his perfect possession. All his.” Larsson dragged his lips over the edge of my jaw. “He said it more than once. I wonder if his desire to fight for you would dull if I claimed his little earth fae for myself.”

No, gods.

Larsson used his legs to slip between mine, spreading my thighs. I screamed under his hand when he bit my neck. Hard. His tongue lapped at a dribble of blood from the wound, and his free hand gathered my skirt in bunches.

No. No, he was going to rape me. He’d mark me. Leave a brand for Erik, for me, to always see.

Larsson’s hand slid beneath my dirty skirt. “I think I will carve my name right here, Lady.”

He cupped me between my legs. His fingers trying to force their way into my entrance.

Breathe. Focus.

Erik’s darkness was my light. He was mine. If his heart was mine, then so was his viciousness.

With my body entangled, arms and legs trapped by Larsson’s weight, all I had were my teeth. I bit down on his ear with such force the harsh tang of blood spilled over my tongue almost instantly.

Larsson roared in pain. His hands slid from my center. My dress fell back into place. I grunted and winced at his flailing hands, striking me in the ribs, the face, the breasts, the skull.

I closed my eyes and bit harder.

In a fierce yank, Larsson pulled back, his hand clutching the side of his head. Blood dribbled over my lips. Something fleshy and solid danced over my tongue. Gods. Oh, gods. My insides lurched, readying to retch, when I opened my lips and a clump of something mangled and bloody slipped from my mouth.

A piece . . . a piece of his ear. I’d bitten off part of his damn ear.

“You bitch!” Larsson roared and his fist collided with my face.

I crumpled. Black spots danced in the corners of my eyes. The pain didn’t stop. He kicked, hit. He was going to kill me.

I love you, Serpent. Destroy him for me.

Larsson kicked his boot against my ribs, and I fell face down on the cold stone. Another slam of his boot to my belly, and I retched. Then, it stopped.

My mind was muddy, and I wanted nothing more than to slip into the oblivion grasping at me from the shadows. I coughed, too numb to truly feel the pain. Voices came in the interlude. Murky sounds, like they were buried within a stormy current.

My head throbbed, but the longer I was left in peace, the clearer the voices became.

“Quit battering her.” Fione’s voice broke through the brutality. “Hesh sent a report on Bloodsinger.”

Larsson’s heavy steps abandoned my side. His absence bolstered enough courage to crack my eyes. A haze clouded my vision, but I could make out just enough to see Fione’s dark, crimson lips.

“Gods, what were you thinking?” Fione inspected Larsson’s ear.

“Tried to reason with the whore,” he lied. “She attacked. Ask one of the elven if there are shackles, and why the hells is she still on the side of Erik Bloodsinger!”

“Give it time to fade.”

Their voices dissolved when the door slammed. I rolled on my back, skull throbbing, body aching. How long I remained unmoving, I didn’t know. From the narrow washroom attached to the bedchamber, a single ribbon of misty night flowed over my head.

I squinted, uncertain if I was seeing correctly. It looked like Skadi’s mists.

Then, it was gone.

Another breath and a loud clatter jolted me into sitting. My battered bones protested, but I looked over my shoulder at the washroom.

“Godsdammit, what is . . . shit. What is this?” A man’s voice murmured and cursed.

I struggled to my knees but could not manage to stand before the door creaked and a face peered from the washroom.

Water still dripped from his defined chin, and his dark eyes widened the moment he saw me. The door kicked the rest of the way open. Gavyn Seeker, still shaping into his broad, strong form from his water shifting, stepped into the room.

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think.

A grin split over Gavyn’s stubbled face. “I don’t know how I arrived here, but good hells, it is a relief to see you, My Queen.”


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