Oak is in cricket green, dancing around in front of the carriage. When he sees me, he runs over, wanting me to carry him, then he runs off to pet the horses before I can. He is a faerie child, with a faerie child’s whims.
Taryn is beautiful in her heavily embroidered dress, and Vivi radiant in soft violet gray with artfully sewn moths seeming to fly from her shoulder across her chest to gather in another group on one side of her waist. I realize how rarely I’ve seen her in truly splendid clothes. Her hair is up, and my earrings glitter in her lightly furred ears. Her cat eyes gleam in the half light, twin to Madoc’s. For once, that makes me smile. I take Taryn’s hand with my undamaged one, and she squeezes it, hard. We grin at each other, conspirators for once.
In the carriage, there is a hamper of things to eat, which was smart of someone, because none of us has remembered to eat enough all day. I remove a glove and eat two small rolls of bread so light and filled with air that they seem to dissolve on my tongue. At the center of each is a mass of honeyed raisins and nuts, their sweetness enough to bring tears to my eyes. Madoc passes me a slab of pale yellow cheese and a still-bloody slice of juniper-and-pepper-crusted venison. We make quick work of the food.
I spot Madoc’s red cap, half in and half out of his front pocket. His version of a medal, I suppose, to be worn on state occasions.
None of us really speaks. I do not know what the others dwell on, but abruptly, I realize I am going to have to dance. I am terrible at dancing, since I have no practice in it other than humiliating lessons at school, partnered with Taryn.
I think of the Ghost and the Roach and the Bomb, trying to safeguard Dain
against whatever Balekin has planned. I wish I knew what to do, how to help them.
KILL THE BEARER OF THIS MESSAGE.
I look over at Madoc, drinking spiced wine. He seems entirely comfortable, totally unaware of—or unconcerned with—the loss of one of his spies.
My heartbeat drums faster. I keep remembering not to wipe my hand on my skirts for fear of smearing them with food. Eventually, Oriana pulls out some handkerchiefs soaked in rose and mint water for us to wipe ourselves down with. This sets off a chase, with Oak trying to avoid being washed. There isn’t far for him to run in the carriage, but he keeps it going longer than you’d think, stepping on all of us in the process.
I am so distracted I don’t even automatically brace when we go straight through the rock and into the palace. We’re lurching to a stop before I even notice we’ve arrived. A footman opens the door, and I see the whole courtyard, filled with music and voices and merriment. And candles, forests of them, the wax melting to create an effect like termite-eaten wood. Candles rest atop tree branches, flames flickering with the whoosh of dresses sweeping below. They line the walls like sentries and clump in tight arrangements on stones, lighting up the hill.
“Ready?” Taryn whispers to me. “Yes,” I say a little breathlessly.
We pile out of the carriage. Oriana has a little silver leash she attaches to Oak’s wrist, which strikes me as not the worst idea, although he whines and sits in the dirt in protest, like a cat.
Vivienne looks around the courtyard. There’s something feral in her gaze. Her nose flares. “Are we supposed to present ourselves to the High King one last time?” she asks Madoc.
He gives a half shake of his head. “No. We will be called forth when it is time to take our oaths. Until then, I must stand beside Prince Dain. The rest of you should go enjoy yourselves until the bells chime and Val Moren begins the ceremony. Then, come to the throne room to witness the coronation. I’d have you close to the dais, where my knights can look after you.”
I turn toward Oriana, expecting another speech about not getting into trouble or even a new speech about keeping my legs closed around royalty, but she is too busy pleading with Oak to get out of the road.
“Let’s party,” Vivi says, sweeping Taryn and me along with her. We escape into the crowd, and moments later, we are drowning in it.
The Palace of Elfhame is packed with bodies. The unallied wild fey, courtiers, and monarchs mingle together. Selkies from Queen Orlagh’s Court
of the Undersea speak together in their own language, skins slung from their shoulders like capes. I spot the lord of the Court of Termites, Roiben, who is said to have killed his own lover to win a throne. He stands near one of the long trestle tables, and even in the cramped hall, there is space around him, as though no one dares get too close. His hair is the color of salt, his garments entirely black, and a deadly curved sword sits at his hip. Incongruously, beside him, a green-skinned pixie girl is dressed in what appears to be a pearl-gray slip dress and heavy lace-up boots—obviously mortal clothes. And standing on either side of the pixie are two knights in his livery, one with scarlet hair braided into a crown on her head. Dulcamara, who lectured us on the crown.
There are others, figures I have heard of in ballads: Rue Silver of New Avalon, who cut her island out of the California coast, is talking to the exiled Alderking’s son, Severin, who might try to ally with the new High King or might join Lord Roiben’s Court. He’s with a red-haired human boy about my age, which makes me pause to study them. Is the boy his servant? Is he enchanted? I can’t tell just from the way he looks around the room, but when he sees me staring, he grins.
I turn quickly away.
As I do, the selkies shift, and I spot someone else with them. Gray-skinned and blue-lipped, hair hanging around her sunken-eyed face. But despite all that, I recognize her. Sophie. I had heard stories about the merfolk of the Undersea keeping drowned sailors, but I didn’t believe them. When her mouth moves, I see that she has sharp teeth. A shudder ripples across my shoulders.
I stumble along after Vivi and Taryn. When I look back, I don’t see Sophie, and I am not entirely sure I didn’t imagine her.
We slide past a shagfoal and a barghest. Everyone is laughing too loudly, dancing too fiercely. As I pass one reveler in a goblin mask, he lifts it and winks at me. It’s the Roach.
“Heard about the other night. Good work,” he says. “Now keep your eyes out for anything that seems amiss. If Balekin’s going to move against Dain, he’s going to do it before the ceremony starts.”
“I will,” I say, pulling free of my sisters to tarry with him a moment. In a crowd this size, it’s easy to be briefly lost.
“Good. Came to see Prince Dain win the crown with my own eyes.” He reaches into his leaf-brown jacket and pulls out a silver flask, popping the top and taking a swig. “Plus watching the Gentry cavort and make fools out of themselves.”
He holds the flask out to me with one gray-green clawed hand. Even from
there, I can smell whatever is inside, pungent and strong and a little swampy. “I’m okay,” I say, shaking my head.
“You sure are,” he tells me, laughing, and then pulls down his mask again. I am left grinning after him as he sweeps away into the crowd. Just seeing him has filled me with a sense of finally belonging to this place. He and the Ghost and the Bomb are not precisely my friends, but they actually seem to like me, and I am not inclined to split hairs. I have a place with them and a
“Where have you been?” Vivienne asks, grabbing hold of me. “You need a leash like Oak’s. Come on, we’re going to dance.”
I eddy along with them. There’s music everywhere, urging a lightness of step. They say the pull of faerie music is impossible to resist, which isn’t quite true. What’s impossible is to stop dancing once you’ve begun, so long as the music goes on. And it does, all night, one dance bleeding into the next, one song becoming another without a pause to catch your breath. It’s exhilarating to be caught up in the music, to be swept away in the tide of it. Of course, Vivi, being one of them, can stop whenever she wants. She can also yank us out, so dancing with her is almost safe. Not that Vivi always remembers to do the safe thing.
But really, I am the last person to judge anyone for that.
We clasp hands and join the circle dance, leaping and laughing. The song feels as though it is calling my blood, moving it through my veins to the same ragged beat, with the same sweet chords. The circle breaks up, and somehow I am holding Locke’s hands. He sweeps me around in a giddy whoosh.
“You are very beautiful,” he says. “Like a winter night.”
He smiles down at me with his fox eyes. His russet hair curls around his pointed ears. From one lobe, a golden earring dangles, catching the candlelight like a mirror. He’s the one who’s beautiful, a kind of breathless, inhuman beauty.
“I’m glad you like the dress,” I manage.
“Tell me, could you love me?” he asks, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Of course.” I laugh, not sure of the answer I am supposed to give. But the question is so oddly phrased that I can hardly deny him. I love my parents’ murderer; I suppose I could love anyone. I’d like to love him.
“I wonder,” he says. “What would you do for me?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” This riddling figure with flinty eyes isn’t the Locke who stood on the rooftop of his estate and spoke so gently to me or who chased me, laughing, through its halls. I am not quite sure who this Locke is, but he has put me entirely off balance.
“Would you forswear a promise for me?” He is smiling at me as though
“What promise?” He sweeps me around him, my leather slippers pirouetting over the packed earth. In the distance, a piper begins to play.
“Any promise,” he says lightly, although it is no light thing he is asking.
“I guess it depends,” I say, because the real answer, a flat no, isn’t what anyone wants to hear.
“Do you love me enough to give me up?” I am sure my expression is stricken. He leans closer. “Isn’t that a test of love?”
“I—I don’t know,” I say. All this must be leading up to some declaration on his part, either of affection or of a lack of it.
“Do you love me enough to weep over me?” The words are spoken against my neck. I can feel his breath, making the tiny hairs stand up, making me shudder with an odd combination of desire and discomfort.
“You mean if you were hurt?” “I mean if I hurt you.”
My skin prickles. I don’t like this. But at least I know what to say. “If you hurt me, I wouldn’t cry. I would hurt you back.”
His step falters as we sweep over the floor. “I’m sure you’d—”
And then he breaks off speaking, looking behind him. I can barely think.
My face is hot. I dread what he will say next.
“Time to change partners,” a voice says, and I look to see that it’s the worst person possible: Cardan. “Oh,” he says to Locke. “Did I steal your line?”
His tone is unfriendly, and as I turn his words over in my mind, they do little to comfort me.
Locke relinquishes me to the youngest prince, as is expected out of deference. I see out of the corner of my eye that Taryn is watching us. She’s standing frozen in the middle of the revel, looking lost, as faeries swarm around her, swinging their partners in dizzying spirals. I wonder if Cardan bothered her before he bothered me.
He takes my wounded hand in his. He’s wearing black gloves, the leather warm even through the silk over my fingers, and a black suit of clothes. Raven feathers cover the upper half of his doublet, and his boots have excessively pointed metal toes that make me conscious of how easy it will be to kick me savagely once we’ve begun dancing. At his brow, he wears a crown of woven metal branches, cocked slightly askew. Dark silver paint streaks over his cheekbones, and black lines run along his lashes. The left one is smeared, as though he forgot about it and wiped his eye.
“What do you want?” I ask him, forcing the words out. I am still thinking about Locke, still reeling from what he said and what he didn’t. “Go ahead.
His eyebrows go up. “I don’t take commands from mortals,” he says with his customary cruel smile.
“So you’re going to say something nice? I don’t think so. Faeries can’t lie.” I want to be angry, but what I feel right now is gratitude. My face is no longer flaming and my eyes aren’t stinging. I am ready to fight, which is far better. Though I am sure it’s the last thing he meant, he did me an enormous favor when he whisked me away from Locke.
His hand slides lower on my hip. I narrow my eyes at him. “You really hate me, don’t you?” he asks, his smile growing.
“Almost as much as you hate me,” I say, thinking of the page with my name scratched on it. Thinking of the way he looked at me when he was drunk in the hedge maze. The way he’s looking at me now.
He lets go of my hand. “Until we spar again,” he says, making a bow that I cannot help feel is nothing but mockery.
I look after him as he weaves unsteadily through the crowd, not sure what to make of that conversation.
Bells begin to ring, signaling the start of the ceremony. The musicians quiet their fiddles and harps. For a long moment, the hill is silent, listening, and then people move to their places. I push toward the front, where the rest of the Gentry of the High King’s Court are assembling. Where my family will be. Oriana is there already, standing beside one of Madoc’s best knights and looking as though she wishes she could be anywhere else. Oak is off his leash and on Taryn’s shoulders. She is whispering something to a laughing Locke.
I stop moving. The crowd surges around me, but I am rooted to the spot as Taryn leans in and tucks a stray bit of hair behind Locke’s ear.
There is so much in that small gesture. I try to make myself believe it means nothing, but after the strange conversation we had, I can’t. But Taryn has a lover, one who is going to ask for her hand tonight. And she knows that Locke and I are… whatever we are.
Do you love me enough to give me up? Isn’t that a test of love?
Vivienne has come out of the crowd, cat eyes agleam, hair loose around her face. She takes Oak in her arms and swings him around and around until they both fall in a whoosh of Vivi’s skirts. I should go over, but I don’t.
I can’t face Taryn yet, not when I cannot get such a disloyal thought out of my head.
Instead, I hang back, watching the royal family assemble on the dais. The High King is seated on his throne of woven branches, wearing the heavy circlet, looking out from his deeply lined face with alert bronze eyes, like those of an owl. Prince Dain sits on a humble wooden stool beside him, dressed in all-white robes, his feet and hands bare. And behind the throne stands the rest of the royal family—Balekin and Elowyn, Rhyia and Caelia. Even Taniot, Prince Dain’s mother, is present, in a garment of shining gold. The only family member missing is Cardan.
The High King Eldred stands, and the entire hill goes quiet. “Long has been my rule, but today I take my leave of you.” His voice echoes through the hill. Rarely has he ever spoken this way, to a great assemblage of us, and I am struck both by the power of his voice and the frailness of his person. “When first I felt the call to search out the Land of Promise, I believed it would pass. But I can resist it no longer. Today, I will be king no more, but wanderer.”
Although everyone here must know this was what we’ve gathered for, still there are cries from all around me. A sprite begins to weep into the hair of a goat-headed phooka.
The Court Poet and Seneschal, Val Moren, steps from the side of the dais. He is stooped, spindly, his long hair full of sticks, with a scald crow perched on one shoulder. He leans heavily on a staff of smooth wood that has begun to bud at the very top, as though it were still alive. He is rumored to have been lured away from the mortal lands to Eldred’s bed in his youth. I wonder what he will do now, without his king.
“We are loath to let you go, my lord,” he says, and the words seem to take on a special, bittersweet resonance coming from his mouth.
Eldred cups his hands, and the branches of the throne shudder and begin to grow, sending up new green shoots to spiral into the air, leaves unfurling and flower buds bursting along the length of them. The roots of the ceiling begin to worm, lengthening like vines and crawling across the underside of the hill. There is a scent in the air, like a summer breeze, heavy with the promise of apples. “Another will stand in my place. I ask of you, release me.”
The assembled Folk speak as one, surprising me. “We release you,” they say, words echoing around me.
The High King lets his heavy robe of state fall from his shoulders. It crumples on the stone in a jewel-encrusted pile. He takes the oak-leaf crown from his own head. Already, he stands up straighter. There is an unnerving eagerness in him. Eldred has been the High King of Elfhame longer than the memories of many of the Folk; he has always seemed ancient to me, but the years seem to fall from him along with the mantle of rule.
“Whom will you put in your stead, to be our High King?” Val Moren asks.
“My third-born, my son Dain,” says Eldred. “Come forward, child.”
Prince Dain rises from his humble place on the stool. His mother removes the white cloth covering him, leaving him naked. I blink once. I am used to a certain amount of nakedness in Faerie, but not among the royal family. Standing next to the rest of them in their heavy brocade and embroidered magnificence, he looks exquisitely vulnerable.
I wonder if he’s cold. I think of my hurt hand and hope so.
“Will you accept?” Val Moren asks. The scald crow on his shoulder lifts black-tipped wings and beats the air. I am not sure if that’s supposed to be part of the ceremony.
“I will assume the burden and the honor of the crown,” Dain says gravely, and in that moment, his nakedness becomes something else, some sign of power. “I will have it.”
“Unseelie Court, night host, come forward and anoint your prince,” Val Moren says.
A boggan makes her hulking way to the raised dais. Her body is covered in thick golden hair, her arms long enough to drag on the ground if she didn’t bend them. She looks strong enough to break Prince Dain in half. Around her waist she wears a skirt of patchwork furs, and in one massive hand she carries what looks like an inkpot.
She paints his left arm with long spirals of clotting blood, paints it over his stomach, down his left leg. He does not flinch. When she is done, she steps back to admire her grisly handiwork and then gives a shallow bow to Eldred.
“Seelie Court, twilight folk, come forward and anoint your prince,” Val Moren says.
A diminutive boy in a wrapper of what looks like birch bark, his wild hair sticking up at odd angles, walks to the dais. Small pale green wings sit on his back. When he anoints Dain’s other side, he paints it in thick swaths of pollen, yellow as butter.
“Wild fey, Shy Folk, come forward and anoint your prince,” says Val Moren.
It is a hob who comes forward this time, in a dapper little suit, carefully sewn. He carries with him a handful of mud, which he smears over the center of Prince Dain’s chest, just above his heart.
I finally spot Cardan in the crowd, unsteady on his feet and with a wineskin in one hand. He appears to have gotten himself riotously drunk. When I think of the smear of silver paint on his face and the way his hand had slid on my hip, I guess he was well on his way there when I saw him. I feel an immense, mean satisfaction that he is not standing with the royal family at the most important moment for the Court in centuries.
He’s going to be in so much trouble.
“Who will clothe him?” Val Moren asks, and in turn, each of his sisters and then his mother bring him a white tunic and pants made from hide, a collar of gold, and high kidskin boots. He looks like a storybook king, one who will have a wise and just rule. I imagine the Ghost in the rafters, and the Roach in his mask, watching proudly. I feel some of that same pride, being sworn to him.
But I cannot forget his words to me: You are my creature, Jude Duarte.
I touch my wounded hand to the hilt of my silver sword, the sword my father forged. After tonight, I will be the High King’s spy and a true member of his Court. I will lie to his enemies and, if that doesn’t work, I will find a way to do something worse. And if he crosses me, well, then I will find a way around that, too.
Val Moren brings the end of his staff down hard against the ground, and I feel the reverberation to my teeth. “And who will crown him?”
Eldred wears an expression of pride. The crown gleams in his gnarled hands, glowing as if sunlight emanated from the metal itself. “I will.”
The guards are changing configuration subtly, perhaps preparing to escort Eldred out of the palace. There are more knights at the edges of the crowd than there were when the coronation ceremony began.
The High King speaks. “Come, Dain. Kneel before me.”
The Crown Prince bends down in front of his father and the assemblage.
My gaze cuts to Taryn, who is still standing with Locke. Oriana has a protective arm around Oak, one of Madoc’s lieutenants bending to speak with her. He gestures toward a doorway, and she says something to Vivi and then starts toward it. Taryn and Locke follow. I grit my teeth and start to push my way through the crowd to them. I don’t want to disgrace myself like Cardan, by not being where I’m supposed to be.
Val Moren’s voice cuts through my thoughts. “And will you, the Folk of Elfhame, accept Prince Dain as your High King?”
The cry rose up from the crowd, in chirping voices and bellows: “We will.”
My gaze goes to the knights surrounding the dais. In another life, I would have been one of them. But as my eyes rest there, I notice familiar faces. Madoc’s best commanders. Warriors who are fiercely loyal.
They are not dressed in their uniforms. Over shining armor, they wear the Greenbriar livery. Perhaps Madoc is only being careful, only putting his best people in place. But the spy I killed, the one with the taunting message, was Madoc’s as well.
And Oriana, Oak, and my sisters are gone. Escorted out of the hill by one
of Madoc’s lieutenants just as the dais became more heavily guarded.
I have a plan to ensure our futures.
I need to find the Roach. I need to find the Ghost. I need to tell them that something’s wrong.
A well-seasoned strategist waits for the right opportunity.
I push past a trio of goblins and a troll and one of the Still Folk. A spriggan growls at me, but I don’t pay any mind. The end of the coronation is in sight. I see goblets and tankards being refilled.
Up on the dais, Balekin has left his place with the other princes and princesses. For a moment, I think it’s part of the ceremony—until he draws a long, thin blade, one I recognize from his horrible duel with Cardan. I stop moving.
“Brother,” Prince Dain admonishes.
“I will not accept you,” Balekin says. “I have come to challenge you for the crown.” All around the dais, I see knights unsheathing blades. But neither Elowyn nor Eldred, nor any of the rest of them—not Val Moren nor Taniot nor Rhyia—is equipped. Only Caelia pulls out a knife from her bodice, the blade too small to be of much use.
I want to draw my own sword, but everyone is pressed in too tightly. “Balekin,” Eldred says sternly. “Child. The High Court cannot be like the
lower Courts. We have no blood inheritance. No duel with your brother will induce me to place a crown on your unworthy head. Content yourself with my choice. Do not humiliate yourself before all of Faerie.”
“This ought only be between us,” Balekin says to Dain, not acknowledging that his father had even spoken. “There is no High Monarch now. There is no one but us and a crown.”
“I need not fight you,” Dain says, gesturing out toward the knights grouped thickly around the dais, waiting for an order. Madoc is among them, but I am not close enough to see more than that. “And you are not worthy of even that much regard.”
“Then have this on your conscience.” Balekin walks two steps and thrusts out his arm. He doesn’t even look in the direction he’s thrusting, but his blade pierces Elowyn’s throat. Someone shrieks, then everyone does. For a moment, the wound is just a blotch against her skin, and then blood pours out, a river of red. She staggers forward, going to her hands and knees. Gold fabric and glittering gems are drowning in scarlet.
It was a mere flick of Balekin’s blade, an almost nonchalant gesture.
Eldred’s hand comes up. I think he means to conjure up the same magic that made the roots grow, made the branches of the throne bloom and twine. But that power is gone; he gave it up with his kingdom. Instead, the newly
budded flowers of the throne brown and wither.
The crow on Val Moren’s shoulder takes to wing, cawing as it flies toward the roots hanging down from the hollow roof of the hill.
“Guards,” Dain says, in a voice that expects to be obeyed. None of the knights advance toward the dais, though. As one, they turn so their backs are to the royal family and their swords to the assemblage. They’re allowing this to happen, allowing Balekin to stage his coup.
But I cannot believe that this is Madoc’s plan. Dain is his friend. Dain campaigned with him. Dain is going to reward him once he’s the High King.
The crowd surges, carrying me with it. Everyone is moving, pushing forward or away from the gruesome tableau. I see the salt-haired king of the Court of Termites try to wade toward the fight, but his own knights get in front of him, holding him back. My family is gone. I look around for Cardan, but he is lost in the crowd.
It is all happening so fast. Caelia has run to the High King’s side. She has her small knife, barely long enough to be a weapon, but she holds it bravely. Taniot crouches over Elowyn’s body, trying to stem the tide of blood with the skirts of her dress.
“What do you say now, Father?” Balekin demands. “Brother?”
Two bolts fly from the shadows, thudding into Balekin’s side. He staggers forward. The cloth of his doublet appears ripped, a gleam of metal underneath. Armor. I scan the rafters for the Ghost.
I am an agent of the prince as surely as he is. It’s my duty to get to Dain. I shove forward again. In my head I can see a vision of the future, like a story I am telling myself, a clear, shining narrative to contrast with the chaos around me. Somehow, I will get to the prince and defend him against Balekin’s treachery until the loyal members of his guard reach us. I will be the hero, the one who put herself between the traitors and her king.
Madoc gets there before I do.
For a brief moment, I am relieved. His commanders’ loyalty might be bought, but Madoc would never—
Then Madoc thrusts his sword through Dain’s chest with such force that the blade emerges on the other side. He drags it up, through his rib cage, to his heart.
I stop moving and let the crowd flow around me. I am still as stone.
I see a flash of white bone, of wet red muscle. Prince Dain, who was almost the High King, falls on top of the gem-crusted red cloak of state, his spilling blood lost in the jumble of jewels.
“Traitors,” Eldred whispers, but his voice is amplified by the space. The word feels as though it rings through the hall.
Madoc pauses and then sets his jaw, as though he is doing some grim duty. He is wearing his red cap now, the one I saw sticking out of his pocket, the one I have studied in its case. Tonight he will freshen it. There will be new tide lines. But I cannot believe he is doing this on anyone’s orders.
He must have allied with Balekin, misdirected Dain’s spies. Put his own commanders in place, to keep the royal family isolated from anyone who would help them. Urged Balekin to orchestrate a strike at the one time no one would expect it. Even figured out that the only way not to trigger the crown’s death curse was to move when it rested on no one’s head. Knowing him as I do, I am sure he planned this coup.
Madoc has betrayed Eldred, and Dain is gone, taking all my hopes and plans with him.
Coronations are a time when many things are possible.
Balekin looks insufferably satisfied with himself. “Give me the crown.” Eldred drops the circlet from his hand. It rolls a little ways across the floor.
“Take it yourself if it’s what you so desire.”
Caelia is making a terrible keening sound. Rhyia stares at the crowd in horror. Val Moren stands beside Eldred, his narrow poet’s face pale. With the knights circling it, the dais is like a terrible stage, where all the players are doomed to run through their roles to the same bloody end.
Madoc’s hands are gloved in red. I cannot stop staring at them.
Balekin lifts the High Crown. The golden oak leaves glitter with the light of candle flame. “You waited too long to depart the throne, Father. You have become weak. You let traitors rule little fiefdoms, the power of the low Courts goes unchecked, and the wild fey do as they like. Dain would have been the same, a coward who hid behind intrigues. But I am not afraid of bloodshed.”
Eldred does not speak. He makes no move toward the crown or toward a weapon. He simply waits.
Balekin orders a knight to bring him Taniot. A female redcap in armor steps onto the dais to grab the struggling consort. Taniot’s head lashes back and forth, her long black horns cutting into the redcap knight’s shoulder. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters. There are too many knights. Two more step forward, and there is no more struggling.
Balekin draws himself up before his father. “Declare me the High King, put the crown on my head, and you may go from this place, free and unharmed. My sisters will be protected. Your consort will live. Otherwise, I will kill Taniot. I will kill her here in front of everyone, and they will all know that you allowed it.”
My gaze goes to Madoc, but he is on the steps, speaking in low tones to one of his commanders, a troll who has eaten at our table, has teased Oak and
made him laugh. I laughed, too, then. Now my hands are shaking, my whole body trembling.
“Balekin, firstborn, no matter whose blood you spill, you will never rule Elfhame,” Eldred says. “You are unworthy of the crown.”
I close my eyes and think of Oriana’s words to me: It is no easy thing to be the lover of the High King. It is to always be a pawn.
Taniot goes to her death with grace. She is still. Her bearing is regal and doomed, as though she has already passed into the realm of ballads. Her fingers are laced together. She makes no sound as one of the knights—the redcap knight with the slashed shoulder—beheads her with a single swift and brutal strike of her blade. Taniot’s horned head rolls a short ways until it hits Dain’s corpse.
I feel something wet on my face, like rain.
There are plenty of the Folk who delight in murder and plenty more who delight in spectacle. A kind of giddy madness seems to come upon the crowd, a kind of hunger for even greater slaughter. I fear they may have a surfeit of satisfaction. Two of the knights have seized Eldred.
“I will not ask you again,” Balekin says.
But Eldred only laughs. He keeps laughing when Balekin runs him through. He doesn’t fall like the others. Instead of blood pouring from his wound, red moths stream out, into the air. They rush out of him so quickly that in a moment, the High King’s body is gone and there are just those red moths, swirling up into the air in a vast cloud, a tornado of soft wings.
But whatever magic made them does not last. They begin to fall until they are scattered across the dais like blown leaves. The High King Eldred is, impossibly, dead.
The dais is strewn with bodies and blood. Val Moren is on his knees. “Sisters,” Balekin says, striding toward them. Some of the arrogance is
gone from his voice, replaced with a horrible softness. He sounds like a man in the midst of a terrible dream from which he refuses to wake. “Which of you will crown me? Crown me and live.”
I think of Madoc telling my mother not to run.
Caelia steps forward, dropping her knife. She is dressed in a stomacher of gold and a skirt of blue, a circlet of berries in her loose hair.
“I will do it,” she says. “It is enough. I will make you the High King, although the stain of what you have done will forever taint your rule.”
Never is like forever, I think, and then am angry to be reminded of anything Cardan has ever said, especially now. There’s a part of me that is glad she has given in, despite the awfulness of Balekin, the inevitable horror of his rule. At least this is over.
A bolt comes from the shadows of the rafters—in a completely different trajectory than the last. It strikes her in the chest. Her eyes go wide, her hands flutter over her heart, as though the wound is immodest and she needs to cover it. Then her eyes roll back, and she goes down without a sigh. It is Balekin who cries out with frustration. Madoc gives orders to his men, pointing toward the ceiling. A phalanx breaks off from the others and rushes up the stairs. A few guards fly up into the air on pale green wings, blades drawn.
He killed her. The Ghost killed her.
I push my way blindly toward the dais, past a sluagh howling for more blood. I don’t know what I think I am going to do when I get there.
Rhyia picks up her sister’s knife, holds it in one shaking hand. Her blue dress makes her look like a bird, caught before she could take flight. She’s Vivi’s only real friend in Faerie.
“Are you really going to fight me, sister?” Balekin says. “You have neither sword nor armor. Come, it is too late for that.”
“It is too late,” she says, and brings the knife to her own throat, pressing the point just below her ear.
“No!” I shout, although my voice is drowned out by the crowd, drowned out by Balekin shouting, too. And then, because I can’t stand to see any more death, I close my eyes. I keep them closed through being jostled by something heavy and furred. Balekin starts calling for someone to find Cardan, to bring him Cardan, and my eyes automatically fly open. But there’s no Cardan in sight. Only Rhyia’s crumpled body and more horror.
Winged archers take aim at the cluster of roots where the Ghost was hiding. A moment later, he drops down into the crowd. I hold my breath, afraid he has been hit. But he rolls, stands, and takes off up the stairs, with guards hot on his heels.
He has no chance. There are too many of them, and the brugh is too packed, leaving nowhere to run. I want to help him, want to go to him, but I am hemmed in. I can do nothing. I can save no one.
Balekin turns on the Court Poet, pointing at him. “You will crown me.
Speak the words of the ceremony.”
“I cannot,” Val Moren says. “I am no kin to you, no kin to the crown.” “You will,” Balekin says.
“Yes, my liege,” the Court Poet answers in a quavering voice. He stumbles through a quick version of the coronation as the hill goes silent. But when the crowd is asked to accept Balekin as the new High King, no one speaks. The golden oak-leaf crown is in Balekin’s hand, but not yet on his head.
Balekin’s gaze sweeps over the audience, and though I know it will not
settle on me, I still flinch. His voice booms. “Pledge yourselves to me.”
We do not. The monarchs do not bend their knees. The Gentry are silent. The wild faeries watch and measure. I see Queen Annet of the southmost Unseelie Court, the Court of Moths, signal to her courtiers to leave the hall. She turns away with a sneer.
“You are sworn to the High King,” Balekin booms. “And I am king now.” Balekin lifts the crown and sets it on his own head. But a moment later, he howls, knocking it off. A burn is on his brow, the red shadow of a circlet.
“We do not swear to the king, but to the crown,” someone cries. It is Lord Roiben of the Court of Termites. He has made his way to stand in front of the knights. And although there are more than a dozen directly between him and Balekin, Roiben does not seem particularly concerned. “You have three days to get it onto your head, kin slayer. Three days before I will depart here, unsworn, unchecked in power, and unimpressed. And I am certain not to be the only one.”
There is a smattering of laughter and whispers as his words spread. A motley group still fills the hall: glittering Seelie and terrifying Unseelie; the wild fey that seldom leave their hills, rivers, or grave mounds; goblins and hags; pixies and phookas. They have watched nearly all the royal family be slaughtered in a single night. I wonder how much more violence will spring up if there is no new monarch to caution them. I wonder who would welcome it.
Sprites glitter in air that stinks of freshly spilled blood. The revel will go
on, I realize. Everything will go on.
But I am not sure that I can.