Chapter no 24

The Cruel Prince

wake up the next afternoon with the taste of poison in my mouth. I had gone to sleep in my clothes, curled around Nightfell’s scabbard.

Although I don’t really want to, I pad down to Taryn’s door and knock on it. I have to say something to her before the world turns upside down again. I have to make things right between us. But no one answers, and when I turn the knob and enter, I find her chamber is empty.

I head down to Oriana’s rooms, hoping she might know where I can find Taryn. I peek in through the open door and find her out on her balcony, looking at the trees and the lake beyond. The wind whips her hair behind her like a pale banner. It balloons her filmy dress.

“What are you doing?” I ask, coming in.

She turns, surprised. And well she might be. I am not sure that I have ever sought her out before. “My people had wings once,” she says, the longing clear in her voice. “And though I’ve never had a pair of my own, sometimes I feel the lack of them.”

I wonder if, when she imagines having wings, she pictures herself flying up into the sky and away from all this.

“Have you seen Taryn?” Vines curl around the posts of Oriana’s bed, their stems a vivid green. Blue flowers hang down in clumps over where she sleeps, making for a richly perfumed bower. There is nowhere to sit that doesn’t seem crawling with plants. It’s hard for me to picture Madoc comfortable here.

“She’s gone to the house of her betrothed, but they’ll be at the High King Balekin’s manor tomorrow. You will be there, too. He’s throwing a feast for your father and some of the Seelie and Unseelie rulers. You’ll be expected to

be less hostile to each other.”

I cannot even imagine the horror, the awkwardness, of being dressed in gossamer, the smell of faerie fruit heavy in the air, while I am supposed to pretend that Balekin is anything but a murdering monster.

“Will Oak go?” I ask her, and feel the first real pang of regret. If I leave, I won’t get to see Oak grow up.

Oriana clasps her hands together and walks over to her dressing table. Her jewelry hangs there—slices of agate on long chains of raw crystal beads, collars set with moonstones, deep green bloodstones strung together, and an opal pendant, bright as fire in the sunlight. And on a silver tray, beside a pair of ruby earrings in the shape of stars, is a golden acorn.

A golden acorn, twin to the one I found in the pocket of the gown that Locke gave me. The dress that had belonged to his mother. Liriope. Locke’s mother. I think of her madcap, joyful dresses, of her dust-covered bedroom. Of how the acorn in her pocket opened to show a bird inside.

“I tried to convince Madoc that Oak was too young and that this dinner will be too dull, but Madoc insisted that he come. Perhaps you can sit beside him and keep him amused.”

I think about the story of Liriope, of how Oriana told it to me when she believed I was getting too close to Prince Dain. Of how Oriana had been a consort to the High King Eldred before she was Madoc’s wife. I think about why she might have needed to make a swift marriage, what she might have had to hide.

I think about the note I found on Balekin’s desk, the one in Dain’s hand, a sonnet to a lady with sunrise hair and starlit eyes.

I think about what the bird said: My dearest friend, these are the last words of Liriope. I have three golden birds to scatter. Three attempts to get one into your hand. I am too far gone for any antidote, and so if you hear this, I leave you with the burden of my secrets and the last act of my heart. Protect him. Take him far from the dangers of this Court. Keep him safe, and never, ever tell him the truth of what happened to me.

I think again about strategy, about Dain and Oriana and Madoc. I recall when Oriana first came to us. How quickly Oak was born and how we weren’t allowed to see him for months because he was so sickly. About how she has always been protective of him around us, but maybe that was for one reason, when I had assumed another.

Just as I’d assumed the child Liriope wanted her friend to take was Locke.

But what if the baby she had been carrying didn’t die with her?

I feel as though I’ve been robbed of breath, as if getting out words is a struggle against the very air in my lungs. I cannot quite believe what I am

about to say, even as I know it’s the conclusion that makes sense. “Oak isn’t Madoc’s child, is he? Or, at least, no more Madoc’s than I am.”

If the boy is born, Prince Dain will never be king.

Oriana claps a hand over my mouth. Her skin smells like the air after a snowfall. “Don’t say that.” She speaks close to my face, voice trembling. “Do not ever say that again. If you ever loved Oak, do not say those words.”

I push her hand away. “Prince Dain was his father and Liriope his mother. Oak is the reason Madoc backed Balekin, the reason he wanted Dain dead. And now he’s the key to the crown.”

Her eyes widen, and she takes my chilly hand in hers. She has never not seemed strange to me, like a creature from a fairy tale, pale as a ghost. “How could you know that? How could you know any of this, human child?”

I had thought Prince Cardan was the most valuable individual in all of Faerie. I had no idea.

Swiftly, I shut the door and close up her balcony. She watches me and doesn’t protest. “Where is he now?” I ask her.

“Oak? With his nurse,” she whispers, drawing me toward the little divan in one corner, patterned with a snake brocade and covered in a fur. “Talk quickly.”

“First, tell me what happened seven years ago.”

Oriana takes a deep breath. “You might think that I would have been jealous of Liriope for being another of Eldred’s consorts, but I wasn’t. I loved her. She was always laughing, impossible not to love—even though her son has come between you and Taryn, I cannot help loving him a little, for her sake.”

I wonder what it was like for Locke to have his mother be the lover of the High King. I am torn between sympathy and a desire for his life to have been as miserable as possible.

“We were confidantes,” Oriana says. “She told me when she began her affair with Prince Dain. She didn’t seem to take any of it seriously. She had loved Locke’s father very much, I think. Dain and Eldred were dalliances, distractions. Our kind do not worry overmuch about children, as you know. Faerie blood is thin. I don’t think it occurred to her that she might have a second son, a mere decade after she bore Locke. Some of us have centuries between children. Some of us never carry any at all.”

I nod. That’s why human men and women are the unacknowledged necessity they are. Without their strengthening the bloodline, Faerie would die out, despite the endless span of their lives.

“Blusher mushroom is a terrible way to die,” Oriana says, hand to her throat. “You begin to slow, your limbs tremble until you can move no more.

But you are still conscious until everything inside you stops, like frozen clockwork. Imagine the horror of that, imagine hoping that you might yet move, imagine straining to move. By the time she got me the message, she was dead. I cut…” Her voice falters. I know what the rest of the sentence must be. She must have cut the child out of Liriope’s belly. I cannot picture prim Oriana doing such a brutal, brave thing—pressing the point of her knife into flesh, finding the right spot and slicing. Prizing a child from a womb, holding its wet body against her. And yet who else could have done it?

“You saved him,” I say, because if she doesn’t want to talk about that part, she doesn’t have to.

“I named him for Liriope’s acorn,” she tells me, her voice barely more than a whisper. “My little golden Oak.”

I wanted so badly to believe that being in Dain’s service was an honor, that he was someone worth following. That’s what comes of hungering for something: You forget to check if it’s rotten before you gobble it down. “Did you know it was Dain who poisoned Liriope?”

Oriana shakes her head. “Not for a long time. It could have been another of Eldred’s lovers. Or Balekin—there were rumors he was the one responsible. I even wondered if it could have been Eldred, if he had poisoned her for dallying with his son. But then Madoc discovered Dain had obtained the blusher mushroom. He insisted I never let Oak be anywhere near the prince. He was furious—angry in a frightening way I had never seen before.”

It’s not hard to see why Madoc would be furious with Dain. Madoc, who once thought his own wife and child were dead. Madoc, who loved Oak. Madoc, who reminded us over and over that family came before all else.

“And so you married Madoc because he could protect you?” I have only blurry memories of his courting Oriana, and then they were sworn, with a child on the way. Maybe I thought it was unusual, but anyone can have good fortune. And it had seemed like bad fortune to me at the time, since Taryn and I worried what the new baby would mean for us. We thought Madoc might tire of us and drop us somewhere with a pocket full of gold and riddles pinned to our shirts. No one finds bad fortune suspicious.

Oriana looks out the glass doors at the wind blowing the trees. “Madoc and I have an understanding. We do not pretend with each other.”

I have no idea what that means, but it sounds like it makes for a cold and careful marriage.

“So what’s his play?” I ask her. “I don’t imagine he intends for Balekin to keep the throne long. I think he would consider it some kind of crime against strategy to leave such an obvious move unexploited.”

“What do you mean?” She looks honestly baffled. They don’t pretend with

each other, my ass.

“He’s going to put Oak on the throne,” I tell her, as though it’s obvious. Because it is obvious. I don’t know how he intends to do it—or when—but I am sure he does. Of course he does.

“Oak,” she says. “No, no, no. Jude, no. He’s just a child.”

Take him far from the dangers of this Court. That’s what Liriope’s note had said. Maybe Oriana should have listened.

I remember what Madoc told us at the dinner table ages ago, about how the throne was vulnerable during a change in power. Whatever he intended to happen with Balekin—and now I am wondering if what he imagined was for Dain to die and Balekin to die, too, for the High King to suspend the coronation, for Madoc to make a different play—he had to see the opportunity in front of him, with only three royals left. If Oak was the High King, then Madoc could be the regent. He would rule over Faerie until Oak came of age.

And then, who knew what might happen? If he could keep Oak in check, he might rule over Faerie forever.

“I was just a child once, too,” I tell her. “I don’t think Madoc was enormously concerned about what I could handle then, and I don’t think he will be too worried about Oak now.”

It’s not like I don’t think he loves Oak. Of course he loves him. He loves me, too. He loved my mother. But he is what he is. He cannot be other than his nature.

Oriana grabs my hand, squeezing it tightly enough that her nails sink into my skin. “You don’t understand. Child kings do not survive long, and Oak is a frail boy. He was too little when he was brought into this world. No king or queen from any Court will bow their heads to him. He wasn’t raised for this burden. You must stop it.”

What might Madoc do with so much power unchecked? What might I do with a brother on the throne? And I could put him there. I have the winning card to play, because while Balekin would resist crowning Oak, I bet Cardan wouldn’t. I could make my brother the High King and myself a princess. All that power is right there for the taking. All I have to do is reach out my hand.

The odd thing about ambition is this: You can acquire it like a fever, but it is not so easy to shed. Once, I was content to hope for knighthood and the power to force Cardan and his friends to leave me alone. All I wanted was to find some place to fit in here in Faerie.

Now I wonder what it would be like to choose the next king.

I think of the tide of blood running over the stone dais to drip down onto the packed-earthen floor of the hill. Running over the bottom edge of the crown so that when Balekin had lifted it, his hands had been smeared red. I

imagine that crown on Oak’s brow and flinch from the image.

I remember, too, what it had felt like to be glamoured by Oak. Over and over I’d slapped myself until my cheek was red and hot and sore. A bruise bloomed the next morning, a bruise that didn’t fade for a week. That’s what children do with power.

“What makes you think I can stop it?” I demand.

Oriana doesn’t release my hand. “You once said that I was wrong about you, that you would never hurt Oak. Tell me, can you do anything? Is there a chance?”

I’m not a monster, I’d told her, back when I said I would never hurt Oak. But maybe being a monster was my calling. “Maybe,” I tell her, which is no answer at all.

On my way out, I spot my little brother. He is out in the garden, picking a bouquet of foxgloves. He’s laughing, sunlight turning his brown hair gold. When his nurse comes toward him, he darts away from her.

I bet he doesn’t even know that those flowers are poison

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