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Chapter no 12

The Cruel Prince

go to sleep early, and when I wake, it is full dark. My head hurts—maybe from sleeping too long—and my body aches. I must have slept with all my muscles tensed.

The lectures of that day have already begun. It doesn’t matter. I’m not going.

Tatterfell has left me a tray with coffee on it, spiced with cinnamon and cloves and a little bit of pepper. I pour a cup. It’s lukewarm, which means it has been there for a while. There’s toast, too, which softens up when I dunk it a few times.

Then I wash my face, which is still sticky with pulp, and then the rest of me. I brush my hair roughly, and then I pull it into a bun by knotting it around a twig.

I refuse to think about what happened the day before. I refuse to think about anything but today and my mission for Prince Dain.

Go to Hollow Hall. Find us a secret the king won’t like. Find treason.

So Dain wants me to help ensure that Balekin isn’t chosen to be the next High King. Eldred can choose any of his children for the throne, but he favors the three eldest: Balekin, Dain, and Elowyn—and Dain above the others. I wonder if spies help keep it that way.

If I can be good at this, then Dain will give me power when he ascends the throne. And after yesterday, I crave it. I crave it like I craved the taste of faerie fruit.

I put on the servant’s dress without any of my mall-acquired underclothes to make sure I am as authentic as possible. For shoes, I dig out a pair of old leather slippers from the back of my closet. They have a hole through the toe

that I tried to fix nearly a year ago, but my sewing skills are poor, and I wound up just making them ugly. They fit, though, and all my other shoes are too beautifully made.

We do not have human servants at Madoc’s estate, but I have seen them in other parts of Faerie. Human midwives to deliver babies from human consorts. Human artisans cursed or blessed with tempting skill. Human wet nurses to suckle sickly faerie infants. Little human changelings, raised in Faerie, but not educated with the Gentry as we are. Cheerful magic-seekers who don’t mind a little drudgery in exchange for some wish of their heart. When our paths cross, I try to talk to them. Sometimes they want to, and sometimes they don’t. Most nonartisans have been at least slightly glamoured to smooth out their memories. They think they’re in a hospital or at a rich person’s house. And when they’re returned home—and Madoc has assured me that they are—they’re paid well and even given gifts, such as good luck or shiny hair or a knack for guessing the right lotto numbers.

But I know there are also humans who make bad bargains or offend the wrong faerie and who are not treated so well. Taryn and I hear things, even if no one means for us to—stories of humans sleeping on stone floors and eating refuse, believing themselves to be resting on feather beds and supping on delicacies. Humans drugged out of their minds on faerie fruit. Balekin’s servants are rumored to be the latter, ill-favored and worse-treated.

I shudder at the thought of it. And yet I can see why a mortal would make a useful spy, beyond the ability to lie. A mortal can pass into low places and high without much notice. Holding a harp, we’re bards. In homespun, we’re servants. In gowns, we’re wives with squalling goblin children.

I guess being beneath notice has advantages.

Next I pack a leather bag with a shift and a knife, throw a thick velvet cloak over my dress, and descend the stairs. The coffee churns in my gut. I am almost to the door when I see Vivi seated on the tapestry-covered window seat.

“You’re up,” she says, standing. “Good. Do you want to shoot things? I’ve got arrows.”

“Maybe later.” I keep my cloak clutched tightly around me and try to move past her, keeping a blandly happy expression on my face.

It doesn’t work. Her arm shoots out to block me. “Taryn told me what you said to the prince at the tournament,” she says. “And Oriana told me how you came home last night. I can guess the rest.”

“I don’t need another lecture,” I say to her. This mission from Dain is the only thing keeping me from being haunted by what happened the day before. I don’t want to lose focus. I am afraid that if I do, I will lose my composure,

too.

“Taryn feels awful,” Vivi says.

“Yeah,” I say. “Sometimes it sucks to be right.”

“Stop it.” She grabs for my arm, looking at me with her split-pupiled eyes. “You can talk to me. You can trust me. What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” I say. “I made a mistake. I got angry. I wanted to prove something. It was stupid.”

“Was it because of what I said?” Her fingers are gripping my arm hard.

The Folk are going to keep treating you like crap.

“Vivi, there’s no way my deciding to mess up my life is your fault,” I tell her. “But I will make them regret crossing me.”

“Wait, what do you mean?” Vivi asks.

“I don’t know,” I say, pulling free. I head toward the door, and this time she doesn’t stop me. Once I’m out, I rush across the lawn to the stables.

I know I am not being fair to Vivi, who hasn’t done anything. She just wanted to help.

Maybe I don’t know how to be a good sister anymore.

At the stables, I have to stop and lean against a wall while I take deep breaths. For more than half my life, I’ve been fighting down panic. Maybe it’s not the best thing for a constant rattle of nerves to seem normal, even necessary. But at this point, I wouldn’t know how to live without it.

The most important thing is to impress Prince Dain. I can’t let Cardan and his friends take that from me.

To get to Hollow Hall, I decide to take one of the toads, since only the Gentry ride silver-shod horses. Although a servant would probably not have a mount of any kind, at least the toad is less conspicuous.

Only in Faerieland is a giant toad the less conspicuous choice.

I saddle and bridle a spotted one and lead her out onto the grass. Her long tongue lashes one of her golden eyes, making me take an involuntary step back.

I hook my foot in the stirrup and swing up onto the seat. With one hand, I pull on the reins, and with the other, I pat the soft, cool skin of her back. The spotted toad launches us into the air, and I hang on.

Hollow Hall is a stone manor with a tall, crooked tower, the whole thing half-covered in vines and ivy. There’s a balcony on the second floor that seems to have a rail of thick roots in place of iron. A curtain of thinner tendrils hangs down from it, like a scraggly beard clotted with dirt. There is something misshapen about the estate that ought to make it charming but instead makes it ominous. I tie up the toad, stuff my cloak into her saddlebags, and start toward the side of the manor, where I believe I will find

a servants’ door. On the way, I stop to pick mushrooms, so it will seem as though I had a reason for being out in the woods.

As I get close, my heart speeds anew. Balekin won’t hurt me, I tell myself. Even if I’m caught, he’ll simply turn me over to Madoc. Nothing bad is going to happen.

I’m not entirely sure that’s true, but I manage to persuade myself enough to approach the servants’ entrance and slip inside.

A hallway goes to the kitchens, where I deposit the mushrooms on a table beside a brace of bloody rabbits, a pigeon pie, a bouquet of garlic scapes and rosemary, a few cloudy-skinned plums, and dozens of bottles of wine. A troll stirs a large pot alongside a winged pixie. And cutting up vegetables are two sunken-cheeked humans, a boy and a girl, both of them with small, stupid smiles on their faces and glazed-over looks in their eyes. They don’t even look down as they chop, and I’m surprised they don’t cut off their own fingers by accident. Worse, if they did, I am not sure they’d notice.

I think of how I felt yesterday, and the echo of faerie fruit comes unbidden into my mouth. I feel my gorge rise, and I hurry past, down the hall.

I am stopped by a pale-eyed faerie guard, who grabs my arm. I look up at him, hoping I can school my expression to be as blank and pleasant and dreamy as that of the mortals in the kitchens.

“I haven’t seen you before,” he tells me, making it an accusation.

“You’re lovely,” I say, trying to sound awed and a little confused. “Pretty eye mirrors.”

He makes a disgusted sound, which I guess means I am doing a good enough job of pretending to be an ensorcelled human servant, although I feel I went weird and over the top in my nervousness. I am not as good at improvising as I had hoped I would be.

“Are you new?” he asks, saying the words slowly.

“New?” I echo, trying to figure out what someone brought here might think about the experience. I cannot stop remembering the sickly sweet taste of faerie fruit on my tongue, but instead of getting me deeper into character, I just want to throw up. “Before I was somewhere else,” I blurt out, “but now I have to clean the great hall with polish until every inch of it shines.”

“Well, I guess you best, then,” he says, letting me go.

I try to control the shudder building up under my skin. I don’t flatter myself that my acting convinced him; he was convinced because I’m human and he expects humans to be servants. Again, I can see why Prince Dain thought I would be useful. After the guard, it is fairly easy to move around Hollow Hall. There are dozens of humans drifting through their chores, lost in sickly dreams. They sing little songs to themselves and whisper words out

loud, but it’s obviously just snatches of a conversation happening in their dreams. Their eyes are shadowed. Their mouths, chapped.

No wonder the guard thought I was new.

Besides the servants, however, are the fey. Guests of some fete that seems to have ebbed rather than ended. They sleep in various states of undress, draped over couches and entwined on the floors of the parlors I pass through, their mouths stained gold with nevermore, a glittering golden powder so concentrated that it stupefies faeries and gives mortals the ability to glamour one another. Goblets lie on their side, mead pooling to run over the uneven floor like tributaries into great honey-wine lakes. Some of the Folk are so still I worry that they have debauched themselves into death.

“Excuse me,” I say to a girl about my age carrying a tin bucket. She passes me without even seeming to notice I have spoken.

With no idea what else to do, I decide to follow. We pad up a wide stone staircase without rails. Three more of the Folk lie in a dissipated stupor beside a thimble-sized bottle of spirits. Above, from the other end of the hall, I hear an odd cry, like someone in pain. Something heavy hits the ground. Rattled, I try to school my face back to dreamy nonchalance, but it isn’t easy. My heart beats like a trapped bird.

The girl opens a door to a bedroom suite, and I slip in behind her.

The walls are stone and hung with no paintings or tapestries. A massive half-tester bed takes up most of the space in the first room, the headboard panel carved with various animals with women’s heads and bare breasts— owls and snakes and foxes—doing some kind of weird dance.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since Balekin heads the profligate Circle of Grackles.

The books piled up on the wooden desk are ones I recognize—the same books Taryn and I study for our classes. These are spread out, with a few pieces of paper scattered over the wood between them, beside an open inkpot. One of the books has careful notations along one side, while the other is covered in blots. A broken pen, snapped in half deliberately—or at least I can’t think of a way it could have happened that’s not deliberate—is lying in the hinge of the ink-stained book.

Nothing that looks treasonous.

Prince Dain gifted me the uniform, knowing I could walk in as I had done. He was counting on my ability to lie for the rest. But now that I am inside, I hope there is something in Hollow Hall to find.

Which means that no matter how frightened I am, I must pay attention.

Along the wall are more books, some of them familiar from Madoc’s library. I pause in front of a shelf, frowning, and kneel down. Stuffed into a

corner is a copy of a book I know but didn’t expect to see here in this place— Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, bound together in one volume. Mom read to us from one a lot like that back in the mortal world.

Opening the book, I see the familiar illustrations and then the words:

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad.

You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

A bubble of scary laughter threatens to rise up my throat, and I have to bite my cheek to keep it from coming.

The human girl is kneeling in front of a huge fireplace, sweeping up ash from the grate. The andirons, shaped like enormous curling serpents, flank her, their glass eyes ready to glow with lit flames.

Although it’s ridiculous, I can’t bear to put the book back. It isn’t one Vivi packed, and I haven’t seen it since my mother read it at bedtime. I stuff it down the front of my dress.

Then I go to the wardrobe and open it, seeking some clue, some valuable piece of information. But as soon as I look inside, a wild panic starts in my chest. I am instantly sure whose room I am in. Those are Prince Cardan’s extravagant doublets and breeches, Prince Cardan’s gaudy, fur-edged capelets and spider-silk shirts.

Done sweeping up ash in the fireplace, the servant girl stacks new wood into a pyramid with aromatic pine for kindling resting on top.

I want to push by her and run from Hollow Hall. I had assumed that Cardan lived in the palace with his father, the High King. It didn’t occur to me that he might live with one of his brothers. I remember Dain and Balekin drinking together at the last Court revel. I hope desperately that this wasn’t arranged to humiliate me further, to give Cardan another excuse—or worse, opportunity—to punish me more.

I will not believe it. Prince Dain, about to be crowned the High King, does not have time to indulge in the petty sport of pretending to take me into his service just because a callow younger brother wishes it. He would not set a geas on me or bargain with me just for that. I must continue to believe it, because the alternative is too awful.

All this means is that besides Prince Balekin, I must avoid Prince Cardan on my way through the house. Either of them might recognize me if they glimpsed my face. I must make sure they do not glimpse it.

Probably they will not look too closely. No one looks too closely at human

servants.

Realizing I am not so different, I force myself to notice the pattern of moles on the human girl’s skin and the split ends of her blond hair and the roughness of her knees. I watch how she sways a little as she pushes to her feet; her body’s clearly exhausted, even if her brain doesn’t know it.

If I see her again, I want to know I would recognize her.

But it does no good, undoes no spell. She continues her tasks, smiling the same awful, contented smile. When she leaves the room, I head in the opposite direction. I must find Balekin’s private rooms, find his secrets, and then get out.

I open doors carefully, peering inside. I discover two bedrooms, both under a thick layer of dust, one with a figure lying under a cobwebby shroud on the bed. I pause for a moment, trying to decide if it’s a statue or a corpse or even some kind of living thing, then I realize this has nothing to do with my mission and back out quickly. I open another door to find several faeries twined together on a bed, asleep. One of them blinks drowsily at me, and I catch my breath, but he just slumps back down.

The seventh room enters into a hallway with stairs spiraling up and up into what must be the tower. I take them quickly, my heart racing, my leather shoes soft on the stone.

The circular room I come to is paneled in bookshelves, filled with manuscripts, scrolls, golden daggers, thin glass vials with jewel-colored liquids inside, and the skull of some deerlike creature with massive antlers supporting thin taper candles. Two large chairs rest near the only window. There’s a huge table dominating the middle of the room, and on it are maps weighed down on the corners by chunks of glass and metal objects. Beneath them is correspondence. I shuffle through the papers until I come to this letter:

I know the provenance of the blusher mushroom that you ask after, but what you do with it must not be tied to me. After this, I consider my debt paid. Let my name be stricken from your lips.

Although the letter is unsigned, the writing is in an elegant, feminine hand. It seems important. Could it be the proof Dain is looking for? Might it be useful enough to please him? And yet I cannot possibly take it. If it were to go missing, then Balekin would know for certain that someone had been here. I find a sheet of blank paper and press it over the note. As quickly as I can, I trace the letter, trying to capture the precise hand in which it was written.

I am almost done when I hear a sound. People are coming up the stairs.

I panic. There’s nowhere to hide. There’s practically nothing even in the room; it’s mostly open space, exempting the shelves. I fold up the note, knowing it’s unfinished, knowing the fresh ink will smear.

As quickly as I can, I scuttle underneath one of the large leather chairs, folding myself into a tight ball. I wish I’d left the stupid book where I’d found it because one sharp corner of the cover is digging into my underarm. I wonder what I was thinking, believing myself clever enough to be a spy in Faerieland.

I squeeze my eyes shut, as though somehow not seeing whoever is coming into the room will keep them from seeing me.

“I hope you’ve been practicing,” Balekin says.

My eyes open into slits. Cardan is standing beside the bookshelves, a bland-faced male servant holding a court sword with gold engraving along the hilt and metal wings making the shape of the guard. I have to bite my tongue to keep from making some sound.

“Must we?” Cardan asks. He sounds bored.

“Show me what you’ve learned.” Balekin lifts a single staff from a vessel beside his desk that holds an assortment of staves and canes. “All you have to do is get a single hit in. Just one, little brother.”

Cardan just stands there.

“Pick up the sword.” Balekin’s patience is worn thin already.

With a long-suffering sigh, Cardan lifts the blade. His stance is terrible. I can see why Balekin is annoyed. Surely Cardan must have been given fighting tutors since he was old enough to hold a stick in his hands. I was taught from the time I got to Faerie, so he’d have had years on me, and the first thing I learned was where to put my feet.

Balekin raises his staff. “Now, attack.”

For a long moment, they stand still, regarding each other. Cardan swings his sword in a desultory manner, and Balekin brings down his staff hard, smacking him in the side of the head. I wince at the sound of the wood against his skull. Cardan staggers forward, baring his teeth. His cheek and one of his ears is red, all the way to the point.

“This is ridiculous,” Cardan says, spitting on the floor. “Why must we play this silly game? Or do you like this part? Is this what makes it fun for you?”

“Swordplay isn’t a game.” Balekin swings again. Cardan tries to jump back, but the staff catches the edge of his thigh.

Cardan winces, bringing up his sword defensively. “Then why call it swordplay?”

Balekin’s face darkens, and his grip on the staff tightens. This time he jabs

Cardan in the stomach, striking suddenly and with enough force for Cardan to sprawl on the stone floor. “I have tried to improve you, but you insist on wasting your talents on revels, on being drunk under the moonlight, on your thoughtless rivalries and your pathetic romances—”

Cardan pushes himself to his feet and rushes at his brother, swinging his sword wildly. He wields it like a club. The sheer frenzy of the attack makes Balekin fall back a step.

Cardan’s technique finally shows. He becomes more deliberate, attacking from new angles. He’s never shown much interest in swordsmanship at school, and, although he knows the basics, I am not sure he practices. Balekin disarms him ruthlessly and efficiently. Cardan’s sword flies from his hand, clattering across the floor toward me.

I scuttle back deeper into the shadows of the chair. For a moment, I think that I am going to be caught, but the servant is the one to pick up the blade, and his gaze does not waver.

Balekin cracks his staff against the back of Cardan’s legs, sending him to the ground.

I am delighted. There’s a part of me that wishes I were the one wielding that staff.

“Don’t bother to rise.” Balekin unbuckles his belt and hands it over to the servant. The human man wraps it twice around his palm. “You have failed the test. Again.”

Cardan doesn’t speak. His eyes are glittering with a familiar rage, but for once it isn’t directed at me. He’s on his knees, but he doesn’t appear in any way cowed.

“Tell me.” Balekin’s voice has gone silky, and he paces around his younger brother. “When will you cease being a disappointment?”

“Maybe when you stop pretending that you don’t do this for your own pleasure,” Cardan answers. “If you want to hurt me, it would save us both a lot of time if you got right down to—”

“Father was old and his seed weak when he sired you. That’s why you’re weak.” Balekin puts one hand on his brother’s neck. It looks affectionate, until I see Cardan’s flinch, the shifting of his balance. That’s when I realize Balekin is pressing down hard, pinning Cardan in place on the floor. “Now, take off your shirt and receive your punishment.”

Cardan begins to strip off his shirt, showing an expanse of moon-pale skin and a back with a delicate tracery of faded scars.

My stomach lurches. They’re going to beat him.

I should be glorying in seeing Cardan like this. I should be glad that his life sucks, maybe worse than mine, even though he’s a prince of Faerie and a

horrible jerk and probably going to live forever. If someone had told me that I’d get an opportunity to see this, I would have thought the only thing I’d have to stifle was applause.

But watching, I cannot help observing that beneath his defiance is fear. I know what it is to say the clever thing because you don’t want anyone to know how scared you are. It doesn’t make me like him any better, but for the first time he seems real. Not good, but real.

Balekin nods. The servant strikes twice, the slap of the leather echoing loudly in the still air of the room.

“I don’t order this because I am angry with you, brother,” Balekin tells Cardan, causing me to shudder. “I do it because I love you. I do it because I love our family.”

When the servant lifts his arm to strike a third time, Cardan lunges for his blade, resting on Balekin’s desk where the servant put it. For a moment, I think Cardan is going to run the human man straight through.

The servant does not cry out or lift his hands to protect himself. Maybe he is too ensorcelled for that. Maybe Cardan could stab him right through the heart and he wouldn’t do a single thing to defend himself. I am weak with horror.

“Go ahead,” Balekin says, bored. He makes a vague gesture toward the servant. “Kill him. Show me you don’t mind making a mess. Show me that at least you know how to land a killing blow on such a pathetic target as this.”

“I am no murderer,” says Cardan, surprising me. I would not have thought that was something to be proud of.

In two strides, Balekin is in front of his brother. They look so alike, standing close. Same inky hair, matching sneers, devouring eyes. But Balekin shows his decades of experience, wrenching the sword from Cardan’s hands and knocking him to the ground with the crossbar.

“Then take your punishment like the pathetic creature that you are.” Balekin nods to the servant, who rouses from somnolence.

I watch every blow, every flinch. I have little choice. I can shut my eyes, but the sounds are just as terrible. And worst of all is Cardan’s empty face, his eyes as dull as lead.

Truly, he has come by his cruelty honestly in Balekin’s care. He has been raised up in it, instructed in its nuances, honed through its application. However horrible Cardan might be, I now see what he might become and am truly afraid.

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