Chapter no 23

The Cruel Prince

don’t know what I expect to find when I get home. It’s a long walk through the woods, longer because I give the encampments of the Folk here for the coronation a wide berth. My dress is dirty and tattered at the hem, my feet are sore and cold. When I arrive, Madoc’s estate looks the way it always does, familiar as my own step.

I think of all the other dresses hanging in my closet, waiting to be worn, the slippers waiting to be danced in. I think of the future I thought I was going to have and the one yawning in front of me like a chasm.

In the hall, I see that there are more knights here than I am used to, coming in and out of Madoc’s parlor. Servants rush back and forth, bringing tankards and inkpots and maps. Few spare me a look.

There’s a cry from across the hall. Vivienne. She and Oriana are in the parlor. Vivi runs toward me, throws her arms around me.

“I was going to kill him,” she says. “I was going to kill him if his stupid plan got you hurt.”

I realize I have not moved. I bring one hand up to touch her hair, let my fingers slip to her shoulder. “I’m fine,” I say. “I just got swept up in the crowd. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

Everything is, of course, not at all fine. But no one tries to contradict me. “Where are the others?”

“Oak is in bed,” Oriana says. “And Taryn is outside Madoc’s study. She’ll be along in a moment.”

Vivi’s expression shifts at that, although I am not sure how to read it.

I go up the stairs to my room, where I wash the paint off my face and the mud off my feet. Vivi follows me, perches on a stool. Her cat eyes are bright

gold in the sunlight streaming in from my balcony. She doesn’t speak as I take a comb to my hair, raking through the tangles. I dress myself in dark colors, in a deep blue tunic with a high collar and tight sleeves, in shiny black boots, with new gloves to cover my hands. I strap Nightfell onto a heavier belt and surreptitiously put the ring with the royal seal into my pocket.

It feels so surreal to be in my room, with my stuffed animals and my books and my collection of poisons. With Cardan’s copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass sitting on my bedside table. A new wave of panic passes over me. I’m supposed to figure out how to turn the capture of the missing prince of Faerie to my advantage. Here, in my childhood home, I want to laugh at my daring. Just who do I think I am?

“What happened to your throat?” Vivi asks, frowning at me. “And what’s wrong with your left hand?”

I forgot how carefully I had concealed those injuries. “They’re not important, not with everything that happened. Why did he do it?”

“You mean, why did Madoc help Balekin?” she says, lowering her voice. “I don’t know. Politics. He doesn’t care about murder. He doesn’t care that it’s his fault Princess Rhyia is dead. He doesn’t care, Jude. He’s never cared. That’s what makes him a monster.”

“Madoc can’t really want Balekin to rule Elfhame,” I say. Balekin would influence how Faerie interacts with the mortal world for centuries, how much blood is shed, and whose. All of Faerie will be like Hollow Hall.

That’s when I hear Taryn’s voice float up the stairwell. “Locke has been in with Madoc for ages. He doesn’t know anything about where Cardan is hiding.”

Vivi goes still, watching my face. “Jude—” she says. Her voice is mostly breath.

“Madoc’s probably just trying to frighten him,” Oriana says. “You know he’s not keen on arranging a marriage in the middle of all this turmoil.”

Before Vivi can say anything else, before she can stop me, I’ve gone to the top of the stairs.

I recall the words Locke said to me after I’d fought in the tournament and pissed off Cardan: You’re like a story that hasn’t happened yet. I want to see what you will do. I want to be part of the unfolding of the tale. When he said that he wanted to see what I would do, did he mean to find out what would happen if he broke my heart?

If I can’t find a good enough story, I make one.

Cardan’s words when I asked if he thought I didn’t deserve Locke echo in my head. Oh no, he’d said with a smirk. You’re perfect for each other. And at the coronation: Time to change partners. Oh, did I steal your line?

He knew. How he must have laughed. How they all must have laughed. “So I suppose I know who your lover is now,” I call to my twin sister. Taryn looks up and blanches. I descend the stairs slowly, carefully.

I wonder if, when Locke and his friends laughed, she laughed with them.

All the odd looks, the tension in her voice when I talked about Locke, her concern about what he and I were doing in the stables, what we’d done at his house—all of it makes sudden, awful sense. I feel the sharp stab of betrayal.

I draw Nightfell.

“I challenge you,” I tell Taryn. “To a duel. For my honor, which was grievously betrayed.”

Taryn’s eyes widen. “I wanted to tell you,” she says. “There were so many times I started to say something, but I just couldn’t. Locke said if I could endure, it would be a test of love.”

I remember his words from the revel: Do you love me enough to give me up? Isn’t that a test of love?

I guess she passed the test, and I failed.

“So he proposed to you,” I say. “While the royal family got butchered.

That’s so romantic.”

Oriana gives a little gasp, probably afraid that Madoc would hear me, that he’d object to my characterization. Taryn looks a little pale, too. I suppose since none of them actually saw it, they could have been told nearly anything. One doesn’t have to lie to deceive.

My hand tightens on the hilt of Nightfell. “What did Cardan say that made you cry the day after we came back from the mortal world?” I remember my hands buried in his velvet doublet, his back hitting the tree when I shoved him. And then later, how she denied it had anything to do with me. How she wouldn’t tell me what it did have to do with.

For a long moment, she doesn’t answer. By her expression, I know she doesn’t want to tell me the truth.

“It was about this, wasn’t it? He knew. They all knew.” I think of Nicasia sitting at Locke’s dining table, seeming for a moment to take me into her confidence. He ruins things. That’s what he likes. To ruin things.

I thought she’d been talking about Cardan.

“He said it was because of me that he kicked dirt onto your food,” Taryn says, voice soft. “Locke tricked them into thinking it was you who stole him away from Nicasia. So it was you they were punishing. Cardan said you were suffering in my place and that if you knew why, you’d back down, but I couldn’t tell you.”

For a long moment, I do nothing but take in her words. Then I throw my sword down between us. It clangs on the floor. “Pick it up,” I tell her.

Taryn shakes her head. “I don’t want to fight you.”

“You sure about that?” I stand in front of her, in her face, annoyingly close. I can feel how much she itches to take my shoulders and shove. It must have galled her that I kissed Locke, that I slept in his bed. “I think maybe you do. I think you’d love to hit me. And I know I want to hit you.”

There’s a sword hung high on the wall over the hearth, beneath a silken banner with Madoc’s turned-moon crest. I climb onto a nearby chair, step up onto the mantel, and lift it from its hook. It will do.

I hop down and walk toward her, pointing steel at her heart. “I’m out of practice,” she says.

“I’m not.” I close the distance between us. “But you’ll have the better sword, and you can strike the first blow. That’s fair and more than fair.”

Taryn looks at me for a long moment, then picks up Nightfell. She steps back several paces and draws.

Across the room, Oriana springs to her feet with a gasp. She doesn’t come toward us, though. She doesn’t stop us.

There are so many broken things that I don’t know how to fix. But I know how to fight.

“Don’t be idiots!” Vivi shouts from the balcony. I cannot give her much of my attention. I am too focused on Taryn as she moves across the floor. Madoc taught us both, and he taught us well.

She swings.

I block her blow, our swords slamming together. The metal rings out, echoing through the room like a bell. “Was it fun to deceive me? Did you like the feeling of having something over me? Did you like that he was flirting and kissing me and all the while promising you would be his wife?”

“No!” She parries my first series of blows with some effort, but her muscles remember technique. She bares her teeth. “I hated it, but I’m not like you. I want to belong here. Defying them makes everything worse. You never asked me before you went against Prince Cardan—maybe he started it because of me, but you kept it going. You didn’t care what it brought down on either of our heads. I had to show Locke I was different.”

A few of the servants have gathered to watch.

I ignore them, ignore the soreness in my arms from digging a grave only a night before, ignore the sting of the wound through my palm. My blade slices Taryn’s skirt, cutting nearly to her skin. Her eyes go wide, and she stumbles back.

We trade a series of fast blows. She’s breathing harder, not used to being pushed like this, but not backing down, either.

I beat my blade against hers, not giving her time to do more than defend

herself. “So this was revenge?” We used to spar when we were younger, with practice sticks. And since then we’ve engaged in hair pulling, shouting matches, and ignoring each other—but we’ve never fought like this, never with live steel.

“Taryn! Jude!” Vivi yells, starting toward the spiral stair. “Stop or I will stop you.”

“You hate the Folk.” Taryn’s eyes flash as she spins her sword in an elegant strike. “You never cared about Locke. He was just another thing to take from Cardan.”

That staggers me enough that she’s able to get under my guard. Her blade just kisses my side before I whirl away, out of her reach.

She goes on. “You think I’m weak.”

“You are weak,” I tell her. “You’re weak and pathetic and I—”

“I’m a mirror,” she shouts. “I’m the mirror you don’t want to look at.”

I swing toward Taryn again, putting my whole weight into the strike. I am so angry, angry at so many things. I hate that I was stupid. I hate that I was tricked. Fury roars in my head, loud enough to drown out my every other thought.

I swing my sword toward her side in a shining arc.

“I said stop,” Vivi shouts, glamour shimmering in her voice like a net. “Now, stop!”

Taryn seems to deflate, relaxing her arms, letting Nightfell hang limply from suddenly loose fingers. She has a vague smile on her face, as though she’s listening to distant music. I try to check my swing, but it’s too late. Instead, I let the sword go. Momentum sends it sailing across the room to slam into a bookshelf and knock a ram’s skull to the ground. Momentum sends me sprawling on the floor.

I turn to Vivi, aghast. “You had no right.” The words tumble out of my mouth, ahead of the more important ones—I could have sliced Taryn in half.

She looks as astonished as I am. “Are you wearing a charm? I saw you change your clothes, and you didn’t have one.”

Dain’s geas. It outlasted his death.

My knees feel raw. My hand is throbbing. My side stings where Nightfell grazed my skin. I am furious she stopped the fight. I am furious she tried to use magic on us. I push myself to my feet. My breath comes hard. There’s sweat on my brow, and my limbs are shaking.

Hands grab me from behind. Three more servants pitch in, getting between us and grabbing my arms. Two have Taryn, dragging her away from me. Vivi blows in Taryn’s face, and she comes to sputtering awareness.

That’s when I see Madoc outside his parlor, lieutenants and knights

crowded around him. And Locke.

My stomach drops.

“What is wrong with you two?” Madoc shouts, as angry as I have ever seen him. “Have we not already had a surfeit of death today?”

Which seems like a paradoxical thing to say since he was the cause of so much of it.

“Both of you will wait for me in the game room.” All I can think of is him up on the dais, his blade cracking through Prince Dain’s chest. I cannot meet his gaze. I am shaking all over. I want to scream. I want to run at him. I feel like a child again, a helpless child in a house of death.

I want to do something, but I do nothing.

He turns to Gnarbone. “Go with them. Make sure they stay away from each other.”

I am led into the game room and sit on the floor with my head in my hands. When I bring them away, they are wet with tears. I wipe my fingers quickly against my pants, before Taryn can see.



We wait at least an hour. I don’t say a single thing to Taryn, and she doesn’t say anything to me, either. She sniffles a little, then wipes her nose and doesn’t weep.

I think of Cardan tied to a chair to cheer myself. Then I think of the way he looked up at me through the curtain of his crow-black hair, of the curling edges of his drunken smile, and I don’t feel in the least bit comforted.

I feel exhausted and utterly, completely defeated.

I hate Taryn. I hate Madoc. I hate Locke. I hate Cardan. I hate everyone. I just don’t hate them enough.

“What did he give you?” I ask Taryn, finally tiring of the silence. “Madoc gave me the sword Dad made. That’s the one we were fighting with. He said he had something for you, too.”

She’s quiet long enough that I don’t think she’s going to answer. “A set of knives, for a table. Supposedly, they cut right through bone. The sword is better. It has a name.”

“I guess you could name your steak knives. Meaty the Elder. Gristlebane,” I say, and she makes a little snorting noise that sounds like the smothering of a laugh.

But after that, we lapse back into silence.

Finally, Madoc enters the room, his shadow preceding him, spreading

across the floor like a carpet. He tosses a scabbarded Nightfell onto the ground in front of me, and then settles himself on a couch with legs in the shape of bird feet. The couch groans, unused to taking so much weight. Gnarbone nods at Madoc and sees himself out.

“Taryn, I would talk with you of Locke,” Madoc says.

“Did you hurt him?” There is a barely contained sob in her voice.

Unkindly, I wonder if she’s putting it on for Madoc’s benefit.

He snorts, as though maybe he’s wondering the same thing. “When he asked for your hand, he told me that although, as I knew, the Folk are changeable people, he’d still like to take you to wife—which is to mean, I suppose, that you will not find him particularly constant. He said nothing about a dalliance with Jude then, but when I asked a moment ago, he told me, ‘mortal feelings are so volatile that it’s impossible to help toying with them a little.’ He told me that you, Taryn, had shown him that you could be like us. No doubt whatever you did to show him that was the source of conflict between you and your sister.”

Taryn’s dress is pillowed around her. She looks composed, although she has a shallow slash on her side and a cut skirt. She looks like a lady of the Gentry, if one does not stare overmuch at the rounded curves of her ears. When I allow myself to truly think on it, I cannot fault Locke for choosing her. I am violent. I’ve been poisoning myself for weeks. I am a killer and a liar and a spy.

I get why he chose her. I just wish she had chosen me. “What did you say to him?” Taryn asks.

“That I have never found myself particularly changeable,” Madoc says. “And that I found him to be unworthy of both of you.”

Taryn’s hands curl into fists at her side, but there is no other sign that she’s angry. She has mastered a kind of courtly composure that I have not. While I have studied under Madoc, her tutor has been Oriana. “Do you forbid me from accepting him?”

“It will not end well,” Madoc says. “But I will not stand in front of your happiness. I will not even stand in front of misery that you choose for yourself.”

Taryn says nothing, but the way she lets out her breath shows her relief. “Go,” he tells her. “And no more fighting with your kin. Whatever

pleasure you find with Locke, your loyalty is to your family.”

I wonder what he means by that, by loyalty. I thought he was loyal to Dain. I thought he was sworn to him.

“But she—” Taryn begins, and Madoc holds up a hand, with the menace of his curved black fingernails.

“Was the challenger? Did she thrust a sword into your hand and make you swing it? Do you really think that your sister has no honor, that she would chop you into pieces while you stood by, unarmed?”

Taryn glowers, putting her chin up. “I didn’t want to fight.”

“Then you ought not do so in the future,” Madoc says. “There’s no point in fighting if you’re not intending to win. You may go. Leave me to talk with your sister.”

Taryn stands and walks to the door. With her hand on the heavy brass latch, she turns back, as though to say something else. Whatever camaraderie we found when he wasn’t there is gone. I can see in her face that she wants him to punish me and is half-sure that he won’t.

“You should ask Jude where Prince Cardan is,” she says, narrow-eyed. “The last time I saw him, he was dancing with her.”

With that, she sweeps out the door, leaving me with a thundering heart and the royal seal burning in my pocket. She doesn’t know. She’s just being awful, just trying to get me in trouble with a parting shot. I cannot believe she would say that if she knew.

“Let’s talk about your behavior tonight,” says Madoc, leaning forward. “Let’s talk about your behavior tonight,” I return.

He sighs and rubs one large hand over his face. “You were there, weren’t you? I tried to get you all out, so you wouldn’t have to see it.”

“I thought you loved Prince Dain,” I say. “I thought you were his friend.” “I loved him well enough,” Madoc says. “Better than I will ever love

Balekin. But there are others who have a claim on my loyalty.”

I think again of my puzzle pieces, of the answers I came back home to get. What could Balekin have given or promised Madoc that would have persuaded him to move against Dain?

“Who?” I demand. “What could be worth this much death?”

“Enough,” he growls. “You are not yet on my war council. You will know what there is to know in the fullness of time. Until then, let me assure you that although things are in disarray, my plans are not overturned. What I need now is the youngest prince. If you know where Cardan is, I could get Balekin to offer you a handsome reward. A position in his Court. And the hand of anyone you wanted. Or the still-beating heart of anyone you despised.”

I look at him in surprise. “You think I’d take Locke from Taryn?”

He shrugs. “You seemed like you wanted to take Taryn’s head from her shoulders. She played you false. I don’t know what you might consider a fitting punishment.”

For a moment, we just look at each other. He’s a monster, so if I want to do a very bad thing, he’s not going to judge me for it. Much.

“If you want my advice,” he says slowly, “love doesn’t grow well, fed on pain. Grant me that I know that at least. I love you, and I love Taryn, but I don’t think she’s suited for Locke.”

“And I am?” I cannot help thinking that Madoc’s idea of love doesn’t seem like a very safe thing. He loved my mother. He loved Prince Dain. His love for us is likely to afford us no more protection than it afforded either of them.

“I don’t think Locke is suited for you.” He smiles his toothy smile. “And if your sister is right and you do know where Prince Cardan is, give him to me. He’s a foppish sort of boy, no good with a sword. He’s charming, in a way, and clever, but nothing worth protecting.”

Too young, too weak, too mean.

I think again of the coup that Madoc had planned with Balekin, wondering how it was supposed to go. Kill the two elder siblings, the ones with influence. Then surely the High King would relent and put the crown on the head of the prince with the most power, the one with the military on his side. Perhaps grudgingly, but once threatened, Eldred would crown Balekin. Except he didn’t. Balekin tried to force his hand, and then everyone died.

Everyone but Cardan. The board swept nearly clear of players.

That can’t be how Madoc thought things would play out. But, still, I remember his lessons on strategy. Every outcome of a plan should lead to victory.

No one can really plan for every variable, though. That’s ridiculous.

“I thought you were supposed to lecture me about not sword fighting in the house,” I say, trying to steer the conversation away from the whereabouts of Cardan. I’ve gotten what I promised the Court of Shadows—an offer. Now I just have to decide what to do with it.

“Must I tell you that if your blade had struck true and you’d hurt Taryn, you would have regretted it all your days? Of all the lessons I imparted to you, I would have thought that was the one I taught you best.” His gaze is steady on mine. He’s talking about my mother. He’s talking about murdering my mother.

I can say nothing to that.

“It is a shame you didn’t take out that anger on someone more deserving.

In times like these, the Folk go missing.” He gives me a significant look.

Is he telling me it’s okay to kill Locke? I wonder what he’d say if he knew I’d already killed one of the Gentry. If I showed him the body. Apparently, maybe, congratulations.

“How do you sleep at night?” I ask him. It’s a crappy thing to say, and I am only saying it, I know, because he has shown me just how close I am to

being everything I have despised in him.

His eyebrows furrow, and he looks at me as though he’s evaluating what sort of answer to give. I imagine myself as he must see me, a sullen girl sitting in judgment of him. “Some are good with pipes or paint. Some have skill in love,” he says finally. “My talent is in making war. The only thing that has ever kept me awake was denying it.”

I nod slowly.

He gets up. “Think about what I’ve said, and then think about where your own talents lie.”

We both know what that means. We both know what I am good at, what I am—I just chased my sister around the downstairs with a sword. But what to do with that talent is the question.



As I exit the game room, I realize that Balekin must have arrived with his retainers. Knights with his livery—three laughing birds emblazoned on their tabards—stand at attention in the hall. I slink past them and up the stairs, dragging my sword behind me, too exhausted to do anything else.

I am hungry, I realize, but I feel too sick to eat. Is this what it is to be brokenhearted? I am not sure it is Locke I am sick over, so much as the world the way it was before the coronation began. But if I could undo the passing of the days, why not unwind them to before I killed Valerian, why not unwind them until my parents are alive, why not unwind them all the way to the beginning?

There’s a knock on my door, and then it opens without my signaling anything. Vivi comes in, carrying a wooden plate with a sandwich on it, along with a stoppered bottle of amber glass.

“I’m a jerk. I’m an idiot,” I say. “I admit it. You don’t have to lecture me.” “I thought you were going to give me a hard time about the glamour,” she

says. “You know, the one you resisted.”

“You shouldn’t magic your sisters.” I draw the cork on the bottle and take a long swig of water. I didn’t realize how thirsty I was. I guzzle more, nearly draining the whole container in one continuous gulping swallow.

“And you shouldn’t try to chop yours in half.” She settles back against my pillows, against my worn stuffed animals. Idly, she picks up the snake and flicks the forks of its felt tongue. “I thought all of it—swordplay, knighthood

—I thought it was a game.”

I remember how angry she was when Taryn and I gave in to Faerie and

started having fun. Crowns of flowers on our heads, shooting bows and arrows at the sky. Eating candied violets and falling asleep with our heads pillowed on logs. We were children. Children can laugh all day and still cry themselves to sleep at night. But to hold a blade in my hand, a blade like the one that killed our parents, and think it was a toy, she’d have to believe I was heartless.

“It’s not,” I say finally.

“No,” Vivi says, wrapping the stuffed snake around the stuffed cat.

“Did she tell you about him?” I ask, climbing onto my bed next to her. It feels good to lie down, maybe a little too good. I am instantly drowsy.

“I didn’t know Taryn was with Locke,” Vivi says, deliberately giving me the whole sentence so I won’t have to wonder if she’s trying to trick me. “But I don’t want to talk about Locke. Forget him. I want us to leave Faerie. Tonight.”

That makes me sit upright. “What?”

She laughs at my reaction. It’s such a normal sound, so completely out of step with the high drama of the last two days. “I thought that would surprise you. Look, whatever happens next here, it’s not going to be good. Balekin’s an asshole. And he’s dumb on top of it. You should have heard Dad swearing on our way home. Let’s just go.”

“What about Taryn?” I ask.

“I’ve already asked her, and I’m not going to tell you if she agreed to come or not. I want you to answer for you. Jude, listen. I know you’re keeping secrets. Something is making you sick. You’re paler and thinner, and your eyes have a weird shine.”

“I’m fine,” I say.

“Liar,” she says, but the accusation has no heat. “I know that you’re stuck here in Faerie because of me. I know that the shittiest things that have happened in your whole life are because of me. You’ve never said it, which is kind of you, but I know. You’ve had to turn yourself into something else, and you’ve done it. Sometimes, when I look at you, I’m not sure if you’d even know how to be human anymore.”

I don’t know what to do with that—compliment and insult all at once. But behind it is a feeling of prophecy.

“You fit in better here than I do,” Vivi says. “But I bet it cost you something.”

I mostly don’t like to imagine the life I could have had, the one without magic in it. The one where I went to a regular school and learned regular things. The one where I had a living father and mother. The one where my older sister was the weirdo. Where I wasn’t so angry. Where my hands

weren’t stained with blood. I picture it now, and I feel strange, tense all over, my stomach churning.

What I feel is panic.

When the wolves come for that Jude, she’ll be eaten up in an instant—and wolves always come. It frightens me to think of myself so vulnerable. But as I am now, I am well on my way to becoming one of the wolves. Whatever essential thing the other Jude has, whatever part that’s unbroken in her and broken in me, that thing might be unrecoverable. Vivi is right; it cost me something to be the way I am. But I do not know what. And I don’t know if I can get it back. I don’t even know if I want it.

But maybe I could try.

“What would we do in the mortal world?” I ask her.

Vivi smiles and pushes the plate with the sandwich toward me. “Go to movies. Visit cities. Learn to drive a car. There are lots of the Folk who don’t live in the Courts, don’t play at politics. We could live any way we like. In a loft. In a tree. Whatever you want.”

“With Heather?” I pick up the food and take a huge bite. Sliced mutton and pickled dandelion greens. My stomach growls.

“Hopefully,” she says. “You can help me explain things to her.”

It occurs to me for the first time that, whether she knows it or not, she isn’t suggesting running away to be human. She’s suggesting we live like the wild fey, among mortals, but not of them. We’d steal the cream from their cups and the coins from their pockets. But we wouldn’t settle down and get boring jobs. Or at least she wouldn’t.

I wonder what Heather is going to think of that.

Once Prince Cardan is dealt with in some way, then what? Even if I figure out the mystery of Balekin’s letters, there’s still no good place for me. The Court of Shadows will be disbanded. Taryn will be wed. Vivi will be gone. I could go with her. I could try to figure out what’s broken in me, try to start over.

I think of the Roach’s offer, to go with them to another court. To start over in Faerie. Both feel like giving up, but what else is there to do? I thought that once I was home, I’d come up with a plan, but so far I haven’t.

“I couldn’t leave tonight,” I say hesitatingly.

She gasps, hand to her heart. “You’re seriously thinking about it.”

“There are some things I need to finish. Give me a day.” I keep bargaining for the same thing over and over: time. But in a day I will have squared things with the Court of Shadows. Arrangements will be made for Cardan. One way or another, everything will be settled. I will wring whatever payment I can from Faerie. And if I still don’t have a plan, it will be too late to make one.

“What’s a single day in your eternal, everlasting, interminable life?” “One day to decide or one day to pack your bags?”

I take another bite of sandwich. “Both.”

Vivi rolls her eyes. “Just remember, in the mortal world, it won’t be the way it is here.” She goes to the door. “You wouldn’t have to be the way you are here.”

I hear Vivi’s steps in the hall. I take another bite of my sandwich. I chew and swallow it, but I don’t taste anything.

What if the way I am is the way I am? What if, when everything else is different, I’m not?

I take Cardan’s royal ring out of my pocket and hold it in the center of my palm. I shouldn’t have this. Mortal hands shouldn’t hold it. Even looking closely seems wrong, yet I do anyway. The gold is full of a deep rich redness, and the edges are smoothed by constant wear. There is a little bit of wax stuck in the impression, and I try to root it out with the edge of my nail. I wonder how much the ring would be worth out in the world.

Before I can persuade myself not to, I slip it onto my unworthy finger.

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