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Chapter no 26

The Cruel Prince

don’t have a lot of experience with kisses. There was Locke, and before him, no one. But kissing Locke never felt the way that kissing Cardan does, like taking a dare to run over knives, like an adrenaline strike of lightning, like the moment when you’ve swum too far out in the sea and there is no going back, only cold black water closing over your head.

Cardan’s cruel mouth is surprisingly soft, and for a long moment after our lips touch, he’s still as a statue. His eyes close, lashes brushing my cheek. I shudder, as you’re supposed to when someone walks over your grave. Then his hands come up, gentle as they glide over my arms. If I didn’t know better, I’d say his touch was reverent, but I do know better. His hands are moving slowly because he is trying to stop himself. He doesn’t want this. He doesn’t want to want this.

He tastes like sour wine.

I can feel the moment he gives in and gives up, pulling me to him despite the threat of the knife. He kisses me hard, with a kind of devouring desperation, fingers digging into my hair. Our mouths slide together, teeth over lips over tongues. Desire hits me like a kick to the stomach. It’s like fighting, except what we’re fighting for is to crawl inside each other’s skin.

That’s the moment when terror seizes me. What kind of insane revenge is there in exulting in his revulsion? And worse, far worse, I like this. I like everything about kissing him—the familiar buzz of fear, the knowledge I am punishing him, the proof he wants me.

The knife in my hand is useless. I throw it at the desk, barely registering as the point sinks into the wood. He pulls back from me at the sound, startled. His mouth is pink, his eyes dark. He sees the knife and barks out a startled

laugh.

Which is enough to make me stagger back. I want to mock him, to show up his weakness without revealing mine, but I don’t trust my face not to show too much.

“Is that what you imagined?” I ask, and am relieved to find that my voice sounds harsh.

“No,” he says tonelessly. “Tell me,” I say.

He shakes his head, somewhere chagrined. “Unless you’re really going to stab me, I think I won’t. And I might not tell you even if you were going to stab me.”

I get up on Dain’s desk to put some distance between us. My skin feels too tight, and the room seems suddenly too small. He almost made me laugh there.

“I am going to make a proposal,” Cardan says. “I don’t want to put the crown on Balekin’s head just to lose mine. Ask whatever you want for yourself, for the Court of Shadows, but ask something for me. Get him to give me lands far from here. Tell him I will be gloriously irresponsible, far from his side. He never needs to think of me again. He can sire some brat to be his heir and pass the High Crown to it. Or perhaps it will slit his throat, a new family tradition. I care not.”

I am grudgingly impressed that he’s managed to come up with a fairly decent bargain, despite having been tied to a chair for most of the night and probably quite drunk.

“Get up,” I tell him.

“So you’re not worried I’m going to run for it?” he asks, stretching out his legs. His pointy boots gleam in the room, and I wonder if I should confiscate them since they’re potential weapons. Then I remember how bad he is with a sword.

“After our kiss, I am such a fool over you that I can hardly contain myself,” I tell him with as much sarcasm as I can muster. “All I want to do is nice things that make you happy. Sure, I’ll make whatever bargain you want, so long as you kiss me again. Go ahead and run. I definitely won’t shoot you in the back.”

He blinks a few times. “Hearing you lie outright is a bit disconcerting.” “Then let me tell you the truth. You’re not going to run because you’ve got

nowhere to go.”

I head to the door, flip the lock, and look out. The Bomb is lying on a cot in the sleeping room. The Roach raises his eyebrows at me. The Ghost is passed out in a chair, but he shakes himself awake when we come in. I feel

flushed all over and hope I don’t look it.

“You done interrogating the princeling?” the Roach asks. I nod. “I think I know what I’ve got to do.”

The Ghost takes a long look at him. “So are we selling? Buying? Cleaning his guts off the ceiling?”

“I’m going to take a walk,” I say. “To get some air.” The Roach sighs.

“I just need to put my thoughts in order,” I say. “And then I will explain everything.”

“Will you?” the Ghost wants to know, fixing me with a look. I wonder if he guesses how easily promises are coming to my lips. I am spending them like enchanted gold, doomed to turn back into dried leaves in tills all over town.

“I talked with Madoc, and he offered me whatever I wanted in exchange for Cardan. Gold, magic, glory, anything. The first part of this bargain is struck, and I haven’t even admitted I know where the lost prince might be.”

The Ghost’s lip curls at the mention of Madoc, but he’s silent. “So what’s the holdup?” asks the Roach. “I like all those things.”

“I’m just working out the details,” I say. “And you need to tell me what you want. Exactly what you want—how much gold, what else. Write it down.”

The Roach grunts but doesn’t seem inclined to contradict me. He signals with one clawed hand for Cardan to return to the table. The prince staggers, pushing off the wall to get there. I make sure all the sharp things are where I left them, and then I head for the door. When I look back, I see Cardan’s hands are deftly splitting the deck of cards, but his glittering black eyes are on me.

 

 

I walk to the Lake of Masks and sit on one of the black rocks over the water. The setting sun has lit the sky on fire, set the tops of the trees ablaze.

For a long time, I just sit there, watching the waves lap at the shoreline. I take deep breaths waiting for my mind to settle, for my head to clear. Overhead, I hear the trilling of birds calling to one another as they roost for the night and see glowing lights kindle in hollow knotholes as sprites come awake.

Balekin cannot become the High King, not if there’s anything I can do about it. He loves cruelty and hates mortals. He would be a terrible ruler. For

now, there are rules dictating our interactions with the human world—those rules could change. What if bargains were no longer needed to steal mortals away? What if anyone could be taken, at any time? It used to be like that; it still is in some places. The High King could make both worlds far worse than they are, could favor the Unseelie Courts, could sow discord and terror for a thousand years.

So, instead, what if I turn Cardan over to Madoc?

He would put Oak on the throne and then rule as a tyrannical and brutal regent. He would make war on the Courts that resisted swearing to the throne. He would raise Oak in enough bloodshed that he would turn into someone like Madoc, or perhaps someone more secretly cruel, like Dain. But he would be better than Balekin. And he would make a fair bargain with me and with the Court of Shadows, if only for my sake. And I—what would I do?

I could go with Vivi, I suppose.

Or I could bargain to be a knight. I could stay and help protect Oak, help insulate him from Madoc’s influence. Of course, I would have little power to do that.

What would happen if I cut Madoc out of the picture? That would mean no gold for the Court of Shadows, no bargains with anyone. It would mean getting the crown somehow and putting it on Oak’s head. And then what? Madoc would still become regent. I couldn’t stop him. Oak would still listen to him. Oak would still become his puppet, still be in danger.

Unless—unless somehow Oak could be crowned and spirited away from Faerie. Be the High King in exile. Once Oak was grown and ready, he could return, aided by the power of the Greenbriar crown. Madoc might still be able to assert some authority over Faerie until Oak got back, but he wouldn’t be able to make Oak as bloodthirsty, as inclined toward war. He wouldn’t have the absolute authority that he’d have as a regent with the High King beside him. And since Oak would have been reared in the human world, when he came back to Faerie, hopefully he’d be at least somewhat sympathetic to the place where he was raised and the people he met there.

Ten years. If we could keep Oak out of Faerie for ten years, he could grow into the person he’s going to be.

Of course, by then, he might have to fight to get his throne back. Someone

—probably Madoc, possibly Balekin, maybe even one of the other minor kings or queens—could squat there like a spider, consolidating power.

I squint at the black water. If only there were a way to keep the throne unoccupied for long enough that Oak becomes his own person, without Madoc making war, without any regent at all.

I stand up, having made my decision. For good or ill, I know what I am

going to do. I have my plan. Madoc would not approve of this strategy. It’s not the kind he likes, where there are multiple ways to win. It’s the kind where there’s only one way, and it’s kind of a long shot.

As I stand, I catch my own reflection in the water. I look again and realize that it can’t be me. The Lake of Masks never shows you your own face. I creep closer. The full moon is bright in the sky, bright enough to show me my mother looking back at me. She’s younger than I remember her. And she’s laughing, calling over someone I cannot see.

Through time, she points at me. When she speaks, I can read her lips.

Look! A human girl. She appears delighted.

Then Madoc’s reflection joins hers, his hand going around her waist. He looks no younger then, but there is an openness in his face that I have never seen. He waves to me.

I am a stranger to them.

Run! I want to shout. But, of course, that’s the one thing I don’t need to tell her to do.

 

 

The Bomb looks up when I enter. She’s sitting at the wooden table, measuring out a grayish powder. Beside her are several spun glass globes, corked shut. Her magnificent white hair is tied up with what looks like a piece of dirty string. A smear of grime streaks over her nose.

“The rest of them are in the back,” she says. “With the princeling, getting some sleep.”

I sit down at the table with a sigh. I’d been tensed up to explain myself, and now all that energy has nowhere to go. “Is there anything around to eat?”

She gives me a quick grin as she fills another globe and sets it gingerly in a basket by her feet. “The Ghost picked up some black bread and butter. We ate the sausages, and the wine’s gone, but there might still be some cheese.”

I rummage through the cupboard, take out the food, and then eat it mechanically. I pour myself a cup of bracing and bitter fennel tea. It makes me feel a little steadier. I watch her make explosives for a while. As she works, she whistles a little, off-key. It’s odd to hear; most of the Folk are musically gifted, but I like her tune better for being imperfect. It seems happier, easier, less haunting.

“Where will you go when all this is done?” I ask her.

She glances over at me, puzzled. “What makes you think I’m going anywhere?”

I frown at my nearly empty cup of tea. “Because Dain’s gone. I mean, isn’t that what the Ghost and the Roach are going to do? Aren’t you going with them?”

The Bomb shrugs her narrow shoulders and points a bare toe at the basket of globes. “See all these?”

I nod.

“They don’t travel well,” she says. “I’m going to stay here, with you.

You’ve got a plan, right?”

I am too flummoxed to know what to say. I open my mouth and begin to stammer. She laughs. “Cardan said that you did. That if you were just making a trade, you would have done it already. And if you were going to betray us, you’d have done that by now, too.”

“But, um,” I say, and then lose my train of thought. Something about how he wasn’t supposed to be paying that much attention. “What do the others think?”

She goes back to filling globes. “They didn’t say, but none of us likes Balekin. If you’ve got a plan, well, good for you. But if you want us on your side, maybe you could be a little less cagey about it.”

I take a deep breath and decide that if I am really going to do this, I could use some help. “What do you think about stealing a crown? Right in front of the kings and queens of Faerie?”

Her grin curls up at the corners. “Just tell me what I get to blow up.”

 

 

Twenty minutes later, I light the stub of a candle and make my way to the room with the cots. As the Bomb said, Cardan is stretched out on one, looking sickeningly handsome. He’s washed his face and taken off his jacket, which he has folded up under his head for a pillow. I poke him in the arm, and he comes awake instantly, raising his hand as though to ward me off.

“Shhhh,” I whisper. “Don’t wake the others. I need to talk to you.”

“Go away. You told me you wouldn’t kill me if I answered your questions, and I did.” He doesn’t sound like the boy who kissed me, sick with desire, just hours ago. He sounds sleepy, arrogant, and annoyed.

“I am going to offer you something better than your life,” I say. “Now, come on.”

He stands, shouldering on his jacket, and then follows me into Dain’s office. Once we’re there, he leans against the doorjamb. His eyes are heavy-lidded, his hair messy from the bed. Just looking at him makes me feel hot

with shame. “You sure you brought me here just to talk?”

It turns out that having kissed someone, the possibility of kissing hangs over everything, no matter how terrible an idea it was the first time. The memory of his mouth on mine shimmers in the air between us. “I brought you here to make a deal with you.”

His eyebrow goes up. “Intriguing.”

“What if you didn’t have to go hide somewhere in the countryside? What if there were an alternative to Balekin’s being on the throne?” That’s clearly not what he was expecting me to say. For a moment, his insouciant swagger fails him.

“There is,” he says slowly. “Me. Except I would be a terrible king, and I would hate it. Besides, Balekin is unlikely to put the crown on my head. He and I have never gotten on particularly well.”

“I thought you lived in his house.” I cross my arms over my chest protectively, trying to push away the image of Balekin punishing Cardan. I can’t have any sympathy now.

He tips his head back, looking at me through dark lashes. “Maybe living together is the reason we don’t get on.”

“I don’t like you, either,” I remind him.

“So you’ve said.” He gives me a lazy grin. “So if it’s not me and it’s not Balekin, then who?”

“My brother, Oak,” I tell him. “I’m not going to go into how, but he’s of the right bloodline. Your bloodline. He can wear the crown.”

Cardan frowns. “You’re sure?”

I nod. I don’t like telling him this before I ask him to do what I need, but there’s little he can do with the knowledge. I will never trade him to Balekin. There is no one to tell but Madoc, and he already knows.

“So Madoc will be regent,” Cardan says.

I shake my head. “That’s why I need your help. I want you to crown Oak the High King, and then I’m going to send him to the mortal world. Let him have a chance to be a kid. Let him have a chance at being a good king someday.”

“Oak might make different choices than the ones you want him to,” Cardan says. “He might, for instance, prefer Madoc to you.”

“I have been a stolen child,” I tell him. “I grew up in a foreign land for a far lonelier and worse reason than this. Vivi will care for him. And if you agree to my plan, I’ll get you everything you asked for and more. But I need something from you—an oath. I want you to swear yourself into my service.”

He barks out the same surprised laugh he made when I threw my knife at the desk. “You want me to put myself in your power? Voluntarily?”

“You don’t think I’m serious, but I am. I couldn’t be more serious.” Inside my crossed arms, I pinch my own skin to prevent any twitches, any tells. I need to seem completely composed, completely confident. My heart is speeding. I feel the way I did when I was a child, playing chess with Madoc— I would see the winning moves ahead of me, forget to be cautious, and then be brought up short by a move of his I hadn’t predicted. I remind myself to breathe, to concentrate.

“Our interests align,” he says. “What do you need my oath for?”

I take a deep breath. “I need to be sure you won’t betray me. You’re too dangerous with the crown in your hands. What if you put it on your brother’s head after all? What if you want it for yourself?”

He seems to think that over. “I’ll tell you exactly what I want—the estates where I live. I want them given to me with everything and everyone in them. Hollow Hall. I want it.”

I nod. “Done.”

“I want every last bottle in the royal cellars, no matter how old or rare.” “They will be yours,” I say.

“I want the Roach to teach me how to steal,” he says.

Surprised, I don’t answer for a moment. Is he joking? He doesn’t seem to be. “Why?” I ask finally.

“It could come in useful,” he says. “Besides, I like him.” “Fine,” I say incredulously. “I will find a way to work it out.”

“You really think you can promise all that?” He gives me a considering look.

“I can. I do. And I promise we will thwart Balekin. We will get the crown of Faerie,” I tell him heedlessly. How many promises can I make before I find myself accountable for them? A few more, I hope.

Cardan throws himself into Dain’s chair. From behind the desk, he gazes at me coolly from that position of authority. Something in my gut twists, but I ignore it. I can do this. I can do this. I hold my breath.

“You can have my service for a year and a day,” he says. “That’s not long enough,” I insist. “I can’t—”

He snorts. “I am sure that your brother will be crowned and gone by then. Or we will have lost, despite your promises, and it won’t matter anyway. You won’t get a better offer from me, especially not if you threaten me again.”

It buys me time, at least. I let out my breath. “Fine. We’re agreed.”

Cardan crosses the room toward me, and I have no idea what he’s going to do. If he kisses me, I am afraid I will be consumed by the hungry and humiliating urgency that I felt the first time. But when he kneels down in front of me, I am too surprised to formulate any thoughts at all. He takes my

hand in his, long fingers cool as they curl around mine. “Very well,” he says impatiently, not sounding in the least like a vassal about to swear to his lady. “Jude Duarte, daughter of clay, I swear myself into your service. I will act as your hand. I will act as your shield. I will act in accordance with your will. Let it be so for one year and one day…and not for one minute more.”

“You’ve really improved the vow,” I say, although my voice comes out strained. Even as he said the words, I felt like somehow he got the upper hand. Somehow he’s the one in control.

He stands in one fluid motion, letting go of me. “Now what?”

“Go back to bed,” I tell him. “I’ll wake you in a little while and explain what we’ve got to do.”

“As you command,” Cardan says, mocking smile pulling at his mouth. Then he goes back to the room with the cots, presumably to flop down on one. I think about all the strangeness of his being here, sleeping in homespun sheets, wearing the same clothes for days on end, eating bread and cheese, and not complaining about any of it. It almost seems like he prefers a nest of spies and assassins to the splendor of his own bed.

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