Lips parted, my mouth hovered over Livia’s, and her pants and sighs became my own. On either side of her head, my palms flattened, bracing my weight so I could lift my chest, giving us space to see where our bodies were joined.
Livia’s knees fell open even more, spreading for the slow, deep thrusts of my hips.
What began as gentle kisses traded in the dawn’s light, slowly shifted into stolen touches, sweat, and groans. Tender and without the fear of something soon snatching her away from me, I lavished her body. My tongue swirled over her breast, slowly licking and nipping at the puckered tip.
A breathy squeak was her reply when I scraped my tooth along the side. Her fingers dug into my hair, tangling the waves, holding my face to her skin. My hips snapped, deeper than before.
Livia jolted, a soft plea of my name on her tongue.
“So close,” she mumbled, her head falling to one side, a look of bliss and flushed pleasure on her cheeks. “Erik, don’t stop.”
There wasn’t a damn thing that could get me to stop. I bracketed onto one elbow, sliding my hand between us to tease the swollen bud at the apex of her core. Livia whimpered and bucked to meet my thrusts.
Familiar heat rolled in my gut, lower and lower, until my head was lost in a delirious, intoxicating haze.
Our door slammed against the wall in a frenzy of rattled wood “Bloodsinger, merfolk! They’re swimming and Heartwalker said there’s a damn whale, and ahhh!”
“Rorik!” Livia scrambled for the quilts.
Her knees shot up, catching between my legs.
“Shit.” My teeth dug into my lip, fierce enough I risked blood, and lost my balance so close to the edge of the bed.
Before I could stop it, in a flurry of linens, legs, and curses, I tumbled onto the floor. Naked, half covered by the top fur. A shamed king with a painfully hard cock and his queen shrieking at a snickering boy.
“Erik, gods, sorry. Rorik, get out of here.” Livia wrapped the quilts around her breasts, seething at her younger brother, tossing pillows across the room. “How did you get in here?”
I would relieve Alistair of his centuries’ long service as soon as I could feel my damn cock again.
“Rorik, would you leave them alone until . . . oh bleeding hells.” Elise Ferus, mother to the woman I’d been consuming, naked and breathless moments before, had now entered the room.
Where was the earth bender? Stieg? Perhaps Aleksi and his fathers would care to join in our mortification.
Rorik snorted. “Bloodsinger fell off the bed and flashed his ass—”
“Rorik!” Elise blustered. “Hush. Now!”
Flat on my back, I groaned and covered my face with my hands.
“Maj!” Livia shrieked. “Close the door! Gods, I beg of you.”
Elise, still scolding her son, paused to say, “There is a latch that locks, my girl. For a reason.”
“These are the royal chambers!” Livia insisted. “They are private.”
Elise huffed. “Erik. Good morning.”
“Queen,” I mumbled behind my hands.
“Forgive me, but I was told the king and queen had arranged for a morning ceremony. This may be your palace, but I expect the both of you by the next toll, or chime, or whatever they call it here. Fully clothed.” In the next breath, the door slammed shut again, and silence coated the room.
It couldn’t be helped, I laughed. A sound from deep in my chest vibrated through my ribs until it broke free and could not be reined back.
Livia poked her beautifully heated face over the edge of the bed. “It is not funny, Bloodsinger.”
That only made me laugh again.
Livia fell back onto the pillows, a palm on her forehead. “I’m never going to leave this room again.”
I crept back onto our bed. “Best plan you’ve had.” I kissed one of her breasts. “In fact, I’ll make it a proclamation this very morning.”
She laughed when I kissed the other swell. Lazy strokes of her fingers smoothed across the scars on my back. “Are you ready for this?”
“Ready?” My face nuzzled into her throat. “Yes. No question.”
Livia sighed. “Then, I have terrible news.”
“What is that?”
“We need to leave our bed.”
My mother’s gardens were in full bloom, filled with sea folk and the whole of House Ferus. Only a week had gone by since we’d sailed through the sea barrier (I could not very well call it the Chasm) and returned to the Ever.
Four days since missives across the Ever gave up that over half the isles and noble houses were, at long last, free of the darkening. Even the Daire from Skondell returned with her folk to their sanctuaries and culture on the small isle.
Even with all the people around us, it was strange not to see any of the other royals besides Aleksi. Mira had been reluctant to remain in the earth realms, but one glance at her mother’s face had her reconsidering.
They would be back soon. Or it would be us who went to them.
It wasn’t difficult to sail to the Ever for earth fae, not now. We’d ferried one of their longships behind us on our journey home. Their oars, their sails, nothing snapped. Tait and Gavyn offered to sail on their odd serpent-like ships when Livia’s family returned, to ensure it was safe for any vessel to cross into new seas.
The trouble was the dive beneath the surface. Avaline had already arranged some of her more curious people from the House of Tides to take up posts on the earth fae side of the barrier. They would summon the tides to open for trade and council in turns to come.
Joron had a proclivity to shelter his people, cutting them off from the vastness of the world. It was now more of a challenge to keep people from the House of Tides to remain in the Ever. So many wished to explore and learn and see a land they did not know.
In truth, we already knew Mira and Sander would return for no other purpose than the royals insisted. Different kingdoms, yet we were more like a fifth land of the earth realms, simply with more seas.
Jonas was another matter.
Alistair delivered a missive from the prince only a day before, stating Jonas knew what had been troubling him, and he had his solution. He would not tell us yet, merely stated we’d know soon.
Ominous, and the worry he’d lined on Livia’s face promptly reminded me I’d never gotten the prince back for all his battering when we first met.
“Ah, you chose to join us finally.” Aleksi pinched Livia’s ear as we stepped through a vine-wrapped archway. “Rorik is getting rather impatient.”
When wasn’t the boy impatient? Livia’s brother had taken to the ships of the Ever. Every waking moment he would plead with me, with Tait, Celine, anyone, to let him step aboard and take to the seas.
Sewell was the only one who’d yet to tell the boy no and spent endless chimes each day sailing on sloops in the coves with Rorik at the helm in an oversized tricorn.
Narza stood near a wooden table lined in herbs and dried blossoms. Clay bowls were arranged near a circle of candles.
On one side, Tavish and his family stood by with Maelstrom and Tait. They were to stand for the blood of the king. But I could not, in good conscience, exclude the others. Celine, Gavyn, Sewell, and a freshly groomed Stormbringer joined.
Blood-related or not, they were the ones who’d raised me.
Once Narza was confident this was possible, we’d planned this privately, thinking it would be small and intimate. Livia’s family, as it turned out, was rather expansive when all placed together. They took up a great deal of room.
Aleksi stood between his fathers. The earth bender’s sister, her consort, and their four children, all grown and the eldest of the cousins, had joined. Their son kept a hand around his wife’s shoulders; the scar on her cheek was where all this truly began.
She’d been the one King Thorvald attacked when Valen filled my father’s chest with his axe.
Strange, to have them here. For this reason.
Beside Valen and Elise were Livia’s grandparents, one mortal, one fae, much like her parents. Rorik kept drifting to the side of the sea fae until Stieg promised him a Rave dagger if he would keep still.
The warrior was blood to none of us, but like Celine and her folk, Stieg deserved a place here.
The only one who did not truly belong, at least not to me, was the pensive watch of the elven from one of the upper windows. The woman had willingly returned her herb bands to her neck, agreeing not to use her affinity against us. She’d calmed the dangers of the Chasm, but I did not know what to do with her.
Small grins, a few flickers of feeling, had ignited over her face as of late, but Livia informed me she remained unlike the woman she first met. My songbird was hopeful, but I wasn’t convinced that woman would return.
I shook thoughts of the elven away, turning my focus to the table.
Narza lit the candles. “Bonds are no small thing. Complicated spells, but powerful. Bonds of the heart come from willing blood of two separate lines. These, when valued, when loved, and when cherished, are the heart of the Ever. They are what brings the royal line its full potential.”
Livia slipped her fingers into mine, beaming at me; I could not help but smile back.
Narza reached for Livia’s hand. “Blood is offered, willingly, ardently, and with desire. Is this true of you?”
“Yes.” Livia watched in fascination as drops of her blood spilled into one of the bowls.
My grandmother looked to me. “The heartbond of the House of Kings was destroyed, but we have found nothing that says a new bond cannot be formed with another. Do you willingly claim House Ferus as yours, ardently, and with desire?”
I swallowed, my throat all at once tight. Some, like Joron, would see this as a betrayal of the House of Kings. They would say the Ever King sold himself to the earth fae. I hardly cared. My loyalty was to the woman at my side, thrones and crowns be damned.
It meant something to know every soul of House Ferus came to prove they, too, accepted it.
I nodded and held out my hand for my grandmother. “Careful.”
Narza grinned softly. “I have bandaged more than one scrape on your knees, Grandson. Whether you recall it or not. I’m not afraid of your blood.”
My blood landed in the opposite bowl. One by one, those of our blood families were added. Tavish winked before he added his. We’d never admitted to each other the truth, nor had I said anything to Maelstrom.
It was simply known by the way they’d begun to share stories about my mother, whether through a look I gave, and Maelstrom would say, “Gods, that is how Oline used to frown.” Or if something reminded them of my mother—how she hated the scales of fish or how she’d once determined to be the first Lady of Blades, and that she would’ve been proud to know her son made such a thing possible.
Thorvald would be disappointed, and it made the new bonds all the better.
Narza heated the blood with herbs and incense, then carefully ladled both into one mortar, two bloodlines united. “Join hands.”
Livia and I held our clasped palms over the bowl. Narza began to sing, gentle and sweet.
Skin prickled; our palms heated. The longer Narza sang, the warmer our skin became.
Livia winced. I nearly did when the bite to my forearm dug to the bone. Not like a blade, more a weak burn that spread through meat of the body to the marrow, then the veins, until my chest bloomed in warmth. A soothing heat, like a gulp of hot tea, felt all the way down to the belly.
Narza’s song slowly tapered off. She wiped a tear from the corner of one eye and gestured to our hands. “May you always honor the bond between you.”
Breath went quiet in my lungs. I dropped my gaze to the bare skin on my arms and let out a rough gasp.
Livia laughed, wiping tears away. Branded on our flesh, in the same place that once bore the bind rune of the House of Kings, was a new one tangled in what looked like ivy vines.
“House Ferus,” Elise whispered, grinning. “That is the seal.”
I kept rubbing the place over my heart, reveling in the familiar fullness. Gods, I’d missed it.
Livia rose up on her toes and kissed me, her tears wetting my face. When she pulled back, our families applauded. I looked only at her as her delicate fingers traced the bottom line of my lip.
A thousand turns would not be enough with her, but it would be a start.
While our people cheered and awkwardly came together, houses joined and all, I brushed Livia’s hair from her eyes and smiled.
Without words, only using what was felt, I whispered. Hello, love.
Livia’s eyes burned in a new heat. Hello, Serpent.
The Nightmare Prince
It’d been ages since I’d walked the halls of my own damn palace. Most often, I had a great deal of fun whenever we returned from the Crimson Festival. Hells, I’d even planned to irritate Sander by flaunting our heroics once we’d determined to break out the Ever King and fight beside sea fae.
This return, nothing about it was as I imagined.
Doubtless, nothing about life would be as I imagined after tonight.
I hesitated at the door leading into the wide chamber where an expansive inglenook heated the lower levels. Our main city of Klockglas was often cloudy and cold, as were the walls of the palace. Fitting for us royals, since the king manipulated the fears of others and his sons created nightmares.
Still—and I gave credit to my mother entirely—the palace was warm with laughter and loyalty.
I clung to the hope that it would remain after I admitted to my mother and father what I had done.
I’d sent word to the Ever already, so they wouldn’t be surprised when I returned. Once details were confessed, Erik would think I’d lost my mind, but he wasn’t a man of many words. In truth, he’d see the merit before Livia.
Livie would be like my mother—I could feel it in my gut—but she had no damn room to protest. She’d bleeding fallen in love and in bed with the man who kidnapped her and planned to murder her father.
Not one bit of room to protest.
I blew out a breath and entered without a sound. As a son of thieves, I’d long ago learned how to move like shadows. I was glad for it, not being noticed, for it gave me pause to take in what I loved most about the palace.
Sander, well into being healed, picked at a few dried currants while he read something new about sea fae sent from the witches. He was the one I worried about most. Perhaps he’d see this as a betrayal.
Then again, my twin was the more forgiving one of us.
I watched my parents for a heartbeat or two. I’d always thought my mother was the most beautiful woman. Fiery hair she kept a little wild, a smile that was equal parts devious and loving. She was laughing, the way she always did when my father whispered in her ear—head back, eyes squeezed shut.
Even Daj smiled. Kase Eriksson was who I aspired to be, different as we were.
Where I loved to attend the masques and have plenty of company, my father would be content to never leave this palace or see another soul beyond his family ever again. A possible exaggeration; he’d nearly torn the Kunglig palace apart—or so I was told—when Livia was taken, then once more when he learned his sons had disappeared.
He was close to every royal house in our realms. He simply enjoyed grumbling about them.
With one arm draped around my mother’s shoulders, he pulled her close, all so he could press a kiss to her temple, again and again, like he could not get enough of her. It was a bond I’d never really thought about having.
Until now, when I knew I certainly would never have it.
I cleared my throat.
“Jonas. Come sit with us.” My mother patted the place beside her. “I’ve missed you too much.”
“Not as much as Daj, I’m sure.” I shoved my father’s shoulder as I strode past.
“Frankly, I don’t know why you’re still here,” my father said, a sly grin on his face. “I thought I made it clear that I enjoyed the empty halls and alone time with your mother.”
“Please, contain yourself.” I sat on a bench across from them and wove my fingers together, gaze locked on the threads of the woven rug beneath my boots.
“Jonas?” My mother tilted her head to one side. “Are you all right?”
“I have something I must tell you. All of you.”
Sander slapped the pages of his book closed and perched on the arm of the sofa, concern on his face.
My father said nothing, but his eyes turned to black ink, blotting out until they were empty of any light.
“You’re afraid to tell us. Why?”
Gods, it was damn aggravating when your family could literally know your fears. I let my shoulders slump. “Because you will not like to hear it.”
“Son,” my mother said softly. “Whatever it is, you can always tell us.”
“This bond with the Ever, you know it compels me to keep them safe.”
My father frowned. He’d been furious—no, enraged—at the notion of me taking a lifelong bond. But the man did not care for anything that took away a bit of will. Trapped by dark mesmer magic for a great many turns as a boy had left him furious about the whole notion.
Only after a dozen explanations that it was not a forced bond and merely a need to do what I could to stand with the sea fae, did he find any solace.
“The missing elven prince, he’s left me unsettled. His ambitions, the way he spoke of not only the sea but also our realms, won’t leave me.”
“Jonas,” Sander said. “You know as well as me King Eldirard said he’ll be kept at bay by his father for some time.”
“The risk remains. If it did not, I don’t think the bond would be . . . feeling this way.” My stomach bottomed out. “But I’ve figured out how I can defend them. This is already done, I’ve sent missives, and I am choosing to do this. For all of us. Not only Livie and Bloodsinger, but our people and realms.”
“Jonas, gods, you’re starting to frighten me.” My mother leaned forward. “What is it?”
I held my breath until I reached the count of five.
“To be the kin of elven means their magic will not be a threat. After his failed battle, the betrothal arrangement with the prince can be challenged by a title of equal status.”
My mother cut off her own words when I shook my head, silently pleading for them to let me finish.
“I petitioned the king of the shadow elven for permission to take marital vows with his granddaughter. To make her our kin.” I hesitated. “And he agreed.”