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American King (New Camelot Trilogy #3)(2)
Author: Sierra Simone

“I, uh, I won that crown,” I explained lamely. I lifted the hand wrapped around the cheap metal hilt of the sword. “For pulling this thing from the stone.”

He nodded, looking down at the crown with something like reverence, and then held it out to me. “Then I suppose you should take it.”

There was a moment as I wrapped my fingers around it. Short, wordless, jolting. Like we’d done this before, this very thing. That I’d stood with a sword in one hand and this man had handed me a crown and I had taken it, knowing nothing would ever be the same.

But the moment blew away in the electric, pre-thunderstorm wind, and the man gave me a small smile and turned to leave.

I wasn’t ready for him to go. I felt a sudden anxiety I couldn’t name.

“What should I do with them? The sword and the crown?” I asked the stranger. It seemed so important that I ask, that I know, and that he be the one to tell me.

The man stopped, looking thoughtfully up at the dark, rain-laden sky. “The most important part of wearing a crown and using a sword is knowing when to set them down.”

It was cryptic. And yet perfectly clear, somehow.

“And until then?” I asked.

“Why, until then, you use them. Goodbye, Maxen.”

He knew my name.

He left, and I stood there with a fake sword in one hand and a plastic crown in the other. Then the storm broke and the rain started pouring down.

 

 

Two

 

 

Ash

 

 

now


When Embry Moore leaves a room, the air changes. The molecules of oxygen and nitrogen and argon rearrange themselves into something stale and listless, something only barely life giving. You can drag in lungful after lungful and never get enough, because it’s not enough. There’s not enough to fill your chest and push into your blood. Systems start shutting down. The world goes static-filled and dim.

And now here I am, each breath grating in and out, bringing me no relief, no mercy. Because I am alone, and everything I’ve ever done wrong has made sure that Embry will never breathe the same air as me again.

That’s not even the worst part.

No, the worst part is learning that I’ve never breathed the same air as my son.

Greer is away, Embry is gone, and I have a son.

Whom I’ve never met.

Whose mother is my sister.

Fuck.

I scrub my hands over my face, over the hair that Embry kissed not ten minutes ago. I try to breathe again, try to stop the way my ribs keep jerking with choked sobs, try to stop the tears burning their way past my eyelids. It hurts, my entire body hurts, my chest, my throat, my eyes. I’ve been carved up and I’m bleeding out.

I slide out of the chair I’m sitting in, right onto the floor of my study, pressing my face into the carpet, and I cry. For a young man named Lyr that I’ve never met. For Embry, pressed by Merlin to refuse my love, pressed by Abilene to hurt Greer in order to protect me. Pressed by his own conscience to fight me at long last.

I cry for Greer, because she’s not here, because she doesn’t know, because I don’t know how she’ll look at me when she learns that I got my own sister pregnant.

How could I not know?

I roll onto my back, pressing the heels of my palms into my eyes. It’s all there behind my eyelids—the fires at Glein, that fateful village during the war. Morgan’s limp form as I carried her out of the church. My child was inside her then, saved from incineration by moments, by luck. If he’d died, it would have been my fault.

And all these years—how can my son ever forgive me for all these years apart? How can I ever forgive myself?

There’s more. Embry breaking and betraying me…but broken and betrayed himself.

Greer, with new shadows in her eyes, publicly shamed and taken by force when I couldn’t protect her.

Everyone I’ve failed. Embry and Greer. Lyr and Morgan. Countless others…soldiers and civilians, American citizens and Carpathian villagers. The line of people I’ve let down is numberless, and I have no one to blame but myself.

I stay there for a long time, stretched out on the floor, my hands pressing into my eyes until the tears stop and I see stars. I can’t remember the last time I’ve cried this hard. I can’t remember ever feeling this lonely, this alone. This…rudderless.

What am I supposed to do? When the man who is supposed to love me hates me? When I can’t protect the woman we both love? When I have a son?

What am I supposed to do?

 

“Morgan.”

Her name from my lips results in silence on the other end of the line. Finally Senator Morgan Leffey speaks. “Mr. President.”

“Don’t do that.”

“Do what?” my sister asks in a tired voice. “Be respectful?”

“Put distance between us.” I close my eyes and think of Prague. Not with lust, obviously. But with a sort of fondness. She’d been the first lover to show me what I needed, both that time and then again after Jenny’s death. Even when she hated me, she’d still helped me.

I couldn’t discount the debt I owed her for that. Not in the face of this new, terrible debt.

“Why are you calling, Maxen?” she asks. “Is this about the V.A. overhaul? Because I told you that my committee won’t budge on—”

I interrupt her. “It’s about Lyr, Morgan,” I say. “It’s about our son.”

I hear a small intake of breath, then careful stillness. “Who told you?” Morgan asks, in a voice of glass pretending to be stone. “You weren’t ever supposed to know.”

“That’s not true though, is it?” I’m walking around the empty Residence feeling just as empty as the rooms. “You wanted to tell me once. Before Glein.”

“Yes,” she admits. “Before Glein.”

I rub at the spot in my chest where my heart used to be, before Embry tore it out. “Fuck knows you don’t owe me anything Morgan, but why? Why couldn’t I have known?”

“I thought it made us even. You left me to die, and I hid the new life we made from you. It seemed fair at the time.”

“And now?”

Morgan lets out a breath, and I can picture her running her thumb along her forehead, just like I do when I’m thoughtful or stressed or sorrowful. “And now I don’t know.”

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