Chapter no 25

The Cruel Prince

Laughter greets me when I return to the Court of Shadows. I am expecting to find Cardan as I left him, cowed and quiet, perhaps even more miserable than before. Instead, his hands have been untied, and he is at the table, playing cards with the Roach, the Ghost—and the Bomb. At the center are a pile of jewels and a jug of wine. Two empty bottles rest beneath the table, green glass catching the candlelight.

“Jude,” the Bomb calls happily. “Sit down! We’ll deal you in.”

I am relieved to see her, here and unscathed. But nothing else about this tableau is any good.

Cardan grins at me as though we’ve been great friends all our lives. I forgot how charming he can be—and how dangerous that is.

“What are you doing?” I burst out. “He’s supposed to be tied up! He’s our


“Worry not. Where’s he going to go?” the Roach asks. “You really think he can get past all three of us?”

“I don’t mind being one-handed,” Cardan interjects. “But if you’re going to restrain both of my hands, then you’ll have to pour the wine directly into my mouth.”

“He told us where the old king kept the really good bottles,” says the Bomb, pushing back her white hair. “Not to mention a stash of jewelry that belonged to Elowyn. He figured that in the confusion, no one would notice if it got lifted, and so far, no one has. Easiest job the Roach has ever done.”

I want to scream. They weren’t supposed to like him, but why wouldn’t they? He’s a prince who’s treating them with respect. He’s Dain’s brother. He’s Folk, like them.

“Everything is spiraling into chaos anyway,” says Cardan. “Might as well have some fun. Don’t you think, Jude?”

I take a deep breath. If he undermines my position here, if he manages to make me an outsider, then I am never going to get the Court of Shadows to go along with the plan that is still jumbled up in my head. I can’t seem to figure out how to help anyone. The last thing I need is him making everything worse.

“What did he offer you?” I ask, like we’re all in on the same joke. Yes, it’s a gamble. Maybe Cardan didn’t offer them anything at all.

I try not to seem like I’m holding my breath. I try not to show how small Cardan makes me feel.

The Ghost gives me one of his rare smiles. “Mostly gold, but also power.


“A lot of things he hasn’t got,” said the Bomb.

“I thought we were friends,” Cardan says halfheartedly.

“I’m going to take him in the back,” I say, putting my hand on the top of the chair in a proprietary fashion. I need to get him out of the room before he gets the better of me in front of them. I need to get him away now.

“And do what?” asks the Roach.

“He’s my prisoner,” I remind them, squatting down and slicing through the strips of my dress still tying his legs to the chair. I realize he must have slept this way, sitting upright, if he slept at all. But he doesn’t look tired. He smiles down at me, as if the reason I’m on my knees is because I am curtsying.

I want to wipe that smile off his face, but maybe I can’t. Maybe he’ll go on smiling that way to his grave.

“Can’t we stay out here?” Cardan asks me. “There’s wine out here.”

That makes the Roach snicker. “Something bothering you, princeling? You and Jude don’t get along after all?”

Cardan’s expression shifts into something that appears to resemble worry.


I lead him into Dain’s office, which I guess I’ve just commandeered for my own. He walks unsteadily, his legs stiff from being bound. Also possibly because he has helped my crew down several bottles of wine. No one stops me from taking him, though. I close the door and turn the lock.

“Sit down,” I tell him, pointing to a chair. He does.

I walk around, settling myself on the other side of the desk.

It occurs to me that if I kill him, I can finally stop thinking about him. If I kill him, I won’t have to feel like this anymore.

Without him, there’s no clear path to putting Oak on the throne. I’d have to

trust that Madoc had some way of forcing Balekin into crowning him. Without him, I have no cards to play. No plan. No helping my brother. No nothing.

Maybe it would be worth it.

The crossbow is where I left it, in the drawer of Dain’s desk. I draw it out, cock it back, and point it at Cardan. He draws a ragged breath.

“You’re going to shoot me?” He blinks. “Right now?”

My finger caresses the trigger. I feel calm, gloriously calm. This is weakness, to put fear above ambition, above family, above love, but it feels good. It feels like being powerful.

“I can see why you’d want to,” he says, as though reading my face and coming to some decision. “But I’d really prefer if you didn’t.”

“Then you shouldn’t have smirked at me constantly—you think I am going to stand being mocked, here, now? You still so sure you’re better than me?” My voice shakes a little, and I hate him even more for it. I have trained every day to be dangerous, and he is entirely in my power, yet I’m the one who is afraid.

Fearing him is a habit, a habit I could break with a bolt to his heart.

He holds up his hands in protest, long bare fingers splayed. I am the one with the royal ring. “I’m nervous,” he says. “I smile a lot when I’m nervous. I can’t help it.”

That is not at all what I expected him to say. I lower the crossbow momentarily.

He keeps talking, as though he doesn’t want to leave me too much time to think. “You are terrifying. Nearly my whole family is dead, and while they never had much love for me, I don’t want to join them. I’ve spent all night worrying what you’re going to do, and I know exactly what I deserve. I have a reason to be nervous.” He’s talking to me as though we’re friends instead of enemies. It works, too: I relax a little. When I realize that, I am nearly freaked out enough to shoot him outright.

“I’ll tell you whatever you want,” he says. “Anything.”

“No word games?” The temptation is enormous. Everything Taryn told me is still rattling around in my head, reminding me how little I know.

He puts a hand over where his heart should be. “I swear it.” “And if I shoot you anyway?”

“You might well,” he says, wry. “But I want your word that you won’t.” “My word isn’t worth much,” I remind him.

“So you keep saying.” He raises his brows. “It’s not comforting, I’ve got to tell you.”

I give a surprised laugh. The crossbow wavers in my hand. Cardan’s gaze

is locked on it. With deliberate slowness, I set it down on the wood of the desk. “You tell me whatever I want to know—all of it—and I won’t shoot you.”

“And what can I do to persuade you not to turn me over to Balekin and Madoc?” He lifts a single eyebrow. I am not used to the force of his attention being on me like this. My heart speeds.

All I can do is glower in return. “How about you concentrate on staying alive?”

He shrugs. “What do you want to know?”

“I found a piece of paper with my name on it,” I say. “Over and over, just my name.”

He flinches a little but doesn’t say anything. “Well?” I prompt.

“That’s not a question,” he groans, as though exasperated. “Ask me a proper question, and I’ll give you an answer.”

“You’re terrible at this whole ‘telling me whatever I want to know’ thing.” My hand goes to the crossbow, but I don’t pick it up.

He sighs. “Just ask me something. Ask about my tail. Don’t you want to see it?” He raises his brows.

I have seen his tail, but I am not going to give him the satisfaction of telling him that. “You want me to ask you something? Fine. When did Taryn start whatever it is she has with Locke?”

He laughs with delight. This appears to be a discussion he isn’t interested in avoiding. Typical. “Oh, I wondered when you would ask about that. It was some months ago. He told us all about it—throwing stones at her window, leaving her notes to meet him in the woods, wooing her by moonlight. He swore us to silence, made it all seem like a lark. I think, in the beginning, he did it to make Nicasia jealous. But later…”

“How did he know it was her room?” I ask, frowning.

That makes his smile grow. “Maybe he didn’t. Maybe either of you would have done as his first mortal conquest. I believe his goal is to have both of you in the end.”

I don’t like any of this. “What about you?”

He gives me a quick, odd look. “Locke hasn’t gotten around to seducing me yet, if that’s what you’re asking. I suppose I should be insulted.”

“That’s not what I mean. You and Nicasia were…” I don’t know what to call them. Together isn’t quite the word for an evil and beautiful team, ruining people and enjoying it.

“Yes, Locke stole her from me,” Cardan says with a tightness in his jaw. He doesn’t smile, doesn’t smirk. Clearly, it costs him something to tell me

this. “And I don’t know if Locke wanted her to make some other lover jealous or to make me angry or just because of Nicasia’s magnificence. Nor do I know what fault in me made her choose him. Now do you believe I am giving you the answers you were promised?”

The thought of Cardan being brokenhearted is almost beyond my imagining. I nod. “Did you love her?”

“What kind of question is that?” he demands. I shrug. “I want to know.”

“Yes,” he says, his gaze on the desk, on my hand resting there. I am suddenly conscious of my fingernails, bitten to the quick. “I loved her.”

“Why do you want me dead?” I ask, because I want to remind us both that answering embarrassing questions is the least of what he deserves. We’re enemies, no matter how many jokes he tells or how friendly he seems. Charmers are charming, but that’s all they are.

He lets out a long breath and puts his head down on his hands, not paying nearly enough attention to the crossbow. “You mean with the nixies? You were the one who was thrashing around and throwing things at them. They’re extremely lazy creatures, but I thought you might actually annoy them into taking a bite out of you. I may be rotten, but my one virtue is that I’m not a killer. I wanted to frighten you, but I never wanted you dead. I never wanted anyone dead.”

I think of the river and how, when one nixie detached from the others, Cardan waited until it paused and then left so we could get out of the water. I stare at him, at the traces of silver on his face from the party, at the inky black of his eyes. I suddenly remember how he pulled Valerian off me when I was choking on faerie fruit.

I never wanted anyone dead.

Against my will, I recall the way he held that sword in the study with Balekin and the sloppiness of his technique. I thought he’d been doing that deliberately, to annoy his brother. Now, for the first time, I consider the possibility that he just doesn’t much like sword fighting. That he’d never learned it particularly well. That if we ever fought, I would win. I consider all the things I have done to become a worthy adversary of him, but maybe I haven’t been fighting Cardan at all. Maybe I’ve been fighting my own shadow.

“Valerian tried to murder me outright. Twice. First in the tower, then in my room at my house.”

Cardan lifts his head, and his whole posture stiffens as though some uncomfortable truth just came home to him. “I thought when you said you killed him you meant that you tracked him down and…” His voice trails off,

and he starts over. “Only a fool would break into the general’s house.”

I draw down the collar of my shirt so he can see where Valerian tried to strangle me. “I have another on my shoulder from where he knocked me into the floor. Believe me yet?”

He reaches toward me, as though he’s going to run his fingers over the bruises. I bring up the crossbow, and he thinks better of it. “Valerian liked pain,” he says. “Anyone’s. Mine, even. I knew he wanted to hurt you.” He pauses, seeming to actually have heard his own words. “And he had. I thought he’d be satisfied with that.”

It never occurred to me to wonder what it was like to be Valerian’s friend.

It sounds like it wasn’t so different from being his enemy.

“So it doesn’t matter that Valerian wanted to hurt me?” I ask. “So long as he wasn’t going to kill me.”

“You have to admit, being alive is better,” Cardan returns, that faintly amused tone back in his voice.

I put both of my hands on the desk. “Just tell me why you hate me. Once and for all.”

His long fingers smooth over the wood of Dain’s desk. “You really want honesty?”

“I am the one with the crossbow, not shooting you because you promised me answers. What do you think?”

“Very well.” He fixes me with a spiteful look. “I hate you because your father loves you even though you’re a human brat born to his unfaithful wife, while mine never cared for me, though I am a prince of Faerie. I hate you because you don’t have a brother who beats you. And I hate you because Locke used you and your sister to make Nicasia cry after he stole her from me. Besides which, after the tournament, Balekin never failed to throw you in my face as the mortal who could best me.”

I didn’t think Balekin even knew who I was.

We stare at each other across the desk. Lounging in the chair, Cardan looks every bit the wicked prince. I wonder if he expects to be shot.

“Is that all?” I demand. “Because it’s ridiculous. You can’t be jealous of me. You don’t have to live at the sufferance of the same person who murdered your parents. You don’t have to stay angry because if you don’t, there’s a bottomless well of fear ready to open up under you.” I stop speaking abruptly, surprised at myself.

I said I wasn’t going to be charmed, but I let him trick me into opening up to him.

As I think that, Cardan’s smile turns into a more familiar sneer. “Oh, really? I don’t know about being angry? I don’t know about being afraid?

You’re not the one bargaining for your life.”

“That’s really why you hate me?” I demand. “Only that? There’s no better reason?”

For a moment, I think he’s ignoring me, but then I realize he’s not answering because he can’t lie and he doesn’t want to tell me the truth.

“Well?” I say, lifting the crossbow again, glad to have a reason to reassert my position as the person in charge. “Tell me!”

He leans in and closes his eyes. “Most of all, I hate you because I think of you. Often. It’s disgusting, and I can’t stop.”

I am shocked into silence.

“Maybe you should shoot me after all,” he says, covering his face with one long-fingered hand.

“You’re playing me,” I say. I don’t believe him. I won’t fall for some silly trick, because he thinks I am some fool to lose my head over beauty; if I was, I couldn’t last a single day in Faerie. I stand, ready to call his bluff.

Crossbows aren’t great at close range, so I trade mine for a dagger.

He doesn’t look up as I walk around the desk to him. I place the tip of the blade against the bottom of his chin, as I did the day before in the hall, and I tilt his face toward mine. He shifts his gaze with obvious reluctance.

The horror and shame on his face look entirely too real. Suddenly, I am not so sure what to believe.

I lean toward him, close enough for a kiss. His eyes widen. The look in his face is some commingling of panic and desire. It is a heady feeling, having power over someone. Over Cardan, who I never thought had any feelings at all.

“You really do want me,” I say, close enough to feel the warmth of his breath as it hitches. “And you hate it.” I change the angle of the knife, turning it so it’s against his neck. He doesn’t look nearly as alarmed by that as I might expect.

Not nearly as alarmed as when I bring my mouth to his.

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