Chapter no 29

The Cruel Prince

Never have I walked through the front doors of Hollow Hall. Always before I have come skulking through the kitchens, dressed as a servant. Now I stand in front of the polished wood doors, lit by two lamps of trapped sprites who fly in desperate circles. They illuminate a carving of an enormous and sinister face. The knocker, a circle piercing its nose.

Cardan reaches for it, and because I have grown up in Faerie, I am not entirely surprised into a scream when the door’s eyes open.

“My prince,” it says.

“My door,” he says in return, with a smile that conveys both affection and familiarity. It’s bizarre to see his obnoxious charm used for something other than evil.

“Hail and welcome,” the door says, swinging open to reveal one of Balekin’s faerie servants. He stares openmouthed at Cardan, missing prince of Faerie. “The other guests are through there,” the servant finally manages.

Cardan tucks my arm firmly through his before striding into the entryway, and I feel a rush of warmth as I match his step. I can’t afford to be less than ruthlessly honest with myself. Against my better judgment, despite the fact that he is terrible, Cardan is also fun.

Maybe I should be glad of how little it will matter.

But for now, it’s immensely unnerving. Cardan is dressed in a suit of Dain’s clothes, stolen from the palace wardrobes and altered by a clever-fingered brownie that owed the Roach a gambling debt. He looks regal in different shades of cream—a coat over a vest and loose shirt, breeches and a neckcloth, with the same silver-tipped boots he wore to the coronation, a single sapphire shining from his left ear. He’s supposed to look regal. I helped

choose the clothes, helped make him this way, and yet the effect is not lost on me.

I am wearing a bottle-green gown with earrings in the shape of berries. In my pocket is Liriope’s golden acorn, and at my hip is my father’s sword. Against my skin, I have a collection of knives. It doesn’t feel like enough.

As we cross the floor, everyone turns to look. The lords and ladies of Faerie. Kings and queens of other Courts. The representative from the Queen of the Undersea. Balekin. My family. Oak, standing with Oriana and Madoc. I look over at Lord Roiben, his white hair making him easy to find in the crowd, but he does not acknowledge that we have ever met. His face remains unreadable, a mask.

I am going to have to trust that he will keep his part of the bargain, but I mislike this kind of calculation. I grew up thinking of strategy as finding weaknesses and exploiting them. That I understand. But making people like you, making people want to take your part and be on your side—that I am far less skilled at.

My gaze goes from a table of refreshments to the elaborate gowns to a goblin king crunching on a bone. Then my eyes settle on the Blood Crown of the High King. It rests on a ledge above us, a pillow beneath it. There, it glows with a sinister light.

At the sight, I imagine all my plans coming apart. The thought of stealing it, in front of everyone, daunts me. And yet, having to search Hollow Hall for it would have been daunting, too.

I see Balekin move from speaking with a woman I don’t recognize. She’s wearing a gown of woven seaweed and a collar of pearls. Her black hair is tied to a crown festooned with more pearls, appearing like webbing above her head. It takes me a moment to puzzle out who she must be—Queen Orlagh, Nicasia’s mother. Balekin leaves her and crosses the room toward us with purpose.

Cardan catches sight of Balekin and steers us in the direction of the wine. Bottles and carafes of it—pale green, yellow as gold, the dark purple-red of my heart’s own blood. They are redolent of roses, of dandelions, of crushed herbs and currants. The smell alone nearly makes my head spin.

“Little brother,” Balekin says to Cardan. He is dressed head to toe in black and silver, the velvet of his doublet so thickly embroidered with patterns of crowns and birds that it looks as heavy as armor. He wears a silver circlet on his brow, matching his eyes. It’s not the crown, but it is crown. “I’ve sought high and low for you.”

“Doubtless so.” Cardan smiles like the villain I’ve always believed him to be. “I turned out to be useful after all. What a terrible surprise.”

Prince Balekin smiles back as though their smiles could duel without the rest of them even being involved. I am sure he wishes he could rail at Cardan, could beat him into doing what he wants, but since the rest of their family died at swordpoint, Balekin must have learned his lesson about needing a willing participant in a coronation.

For the moment, Cardan’s presence is enough to reassure people that Balekin will soon be the High King. If Balekin calls for guards or grabs him, that illusion will dissipate.

“And you,” Balekin says, turning his gaze to me, viciousness lighting his eyes. “What have you to do with this? Leave us.”

“Jude,” Madoc says, striding up to stand beside Prince Balekin, who immediately seems to realize I might have something to do with this after all.

Madoc looks displeased but not alarmed. I am sure he is thinking me a fool who expects to get a pat on the head for finding the missing prince and cursing himself for not making it more clear that he wanted Cardan brought to him and not to Balekin. I give him my best blithe smile, like a girl who thinks she has solved everyone’s problems.

How frustrating it must be to come so close to your goal, to have Oak and the crown in one place, to have the lords and ladies of Faerie assembled. And then your first wife’s bastard throws a spanner in the works by handing the one person most likely to put the crown on Oak’s head to your rival.

I note the evaluating look he’s giving Cardan, however. He’s replanning. He rests a heavy hand on my shoulder. “You found him.” He turns to

Balekin. “I hope you’re intending to reward my daughter. I am sure it took no small amount of persuasion to bring him here.”

Cardan gives Madoc an odd look. I remember what he said about it bothering him that Madoc treated me so well when Eldred barely acknowledged him. But the way he’s looking, I wonder if it’s just weird to see us together, redcap general and human girl.

“I will give her anything she asks for and more,” Balekin promises extravagantly. I see Madoc frown, and I give him a quick smile, pouring two glasses of wine—one light and the other dark. I am careful with them, sly-fingered. I do not spill a drop.

Instead of handing one to Cardan, I offer them both up for Madoc to choose between. Smiling, he takes the one the color of heart’s blood. I take the other.

“To the future of Faerie,” I say, tapping the globes together, making the glass ring like bells. We drink. Immediately, I feel the effects—a kind of floatiness, as though I am swimming through air. I don’t want to even look at Cardan. He will laugh and laugh if he thinks I can’t handle a few sips of wine.

Cardan pours his own glass and throws it back.

“Take the bottle,” Balekin says. “I am prepared to be very generous. Let us discuss what you’d like, whatever you’d like.”

“There’s no hurry, is there?” Cardan asks lazily.

Balekin gives him the hard stare of someone barely holding himself back from violence. “I think everyone would like to see the matter settled.”

“Nonetheless,” Cardan says, taking the bottle of wine and drinking directly from the neck. “We have all night.”

“The power is in your hands,” Balekin tells him in a clipped way that leaves the “for now” heavily implied.

I see a muscle twitch in Cardan’s jaw. I am sure Balekin is imagining how he will punish Cardan for any delay. It weighs down his every word.

Madoc, by contrast, is taking in the situation, evaluating, no doubt, what he can offer Cardan. When he smiles at me and takes another swig of his wine, it’s a real smile. Toothy and relieved. I can see he’s thinking that Cardan will be easier to manipulate than Balekin ever would have been.

I am suddenly certain that if we went into the other room, Balekin would find Madoc’s sword buried in his chest.

“After dinner, I will tell you my terms,” Cardan says. “But until then, I am going to enjoy the party.”

“I do not have endless patience,” Balekin growls.

“Cultivate it,” Cardan says, and with a small bow, he navigates us away from Balekin and Madoc.

I leave my glass of wine near a platter of sparrow hearts, pierced through with long silver pins, and weave through the crowd with him.

Nicasia stops us with a long-fingered hand against Cardan’s chest, her cerulean hair bright against her bronze gown.

“Where have you been?” Nicasia asks with a glance at our linked arms. She wrinkles her delicate nose, but panic underlines her words. She is feigning calm, like the rest of us.

I am sure that she thought Cardan had to be dead, or worse. There must be many things she wants to ask him, all of which she cannot do in front of me.

“Jude here made me her prisoner,” he says, and I have to fight down the urge to step heavily on his foot. “She ties very tight knots.”

Nicasia clearly doesn’t know whether to laugh. I almost sympathize. I don’t know, either.

“Good thing you finally managed to slip her bonds,” Nicasia decides on.

He raises both brows. “Did I?” he asks with a haughty condescension, as though she has shown herself to be less clever than he had hoped.

“Must you be like this, even now?” she asks, clearly deciding to throw

caution to the wind. Her hand goes to his arm.

His face softens in a way that I am entirely unused to seeing. “Nicasia,” he says, pulling himself free. “Stay away from me tonight. For your own sake.”

It stings a little, that he has that kindness in him. I don’t want to see it.

She gives me a look, doubtlessly trying to decide why his pronouncement doesn’t apply to me. But then Cardan is moving away from her, and I go with him. I see Taryn across the room, Locke beside her. Her eyes widen, taking in whom I am standing with. Something passes over her face, and it looks a lot like resentment.

She has Locke, but I am here with a prince.

That’s not fair. I cannot know she is thinking that from just one look.

“Part one completed,” I say, looking away from her. Speaking to Cardan under my breath. “We got here, got in, and are not yet in chains.”

“Yes,” he says. “I believe the Roach called that ‘the easy bit.’”

The plan, as I’ve explained it to him, has five basic phases: (1) get in, (2) get everybody else in, (3) get the crown, (4) put the crown on Oak’s head, and

(5) get out.

I take my arm from his. “Don’t go anywhere alone,” I remind Cardan.

He gives me the tight-lipped smile of someone who’s being abandoned and nods once.

I head toward Oriana and Oak. On the other side of the room, I see Severin break off from a conversation and walk toward Prince Balekin. Sweat beads on my lip, under my arms. My muscles tense.

If Severin says the wrong thing, I am going to have to abandon all phases of the plan except for “get out.”

Oriana raises both brows as I approach, her hands going to Oak’s thin shoulders. He reaches up his hands. I want to swing him up into my arms. I want to ask him if Vivi explained what’s going to happen. I want to tell him everything’s going to be fine. But Oriana grabs his fingers, pressing them between hers, settling the question of how many lies I could stomach.

“What is this?” Oriana asks me with a nod toward Cardan.

“What you asked,” I tell her, following her gaze. Somehow, Balekin has drawn Cardan into his conversation with Severin. Cardan laughs at something Balekin said, looking as comfortably arrogant as I’ve ever seen him. I am shocked by recognition—if you live your life always afraid, always with danger on your heels, it is not so difficult to pretend away more danger. I know that, but I didn’t think, of all people, Cardan would, too. Balekin has his hand on Cardan’s shoulder. I can just imagine his fingers digging into Cardan’s neck. “It’s not easy. I hope you understand there’s going to be a price—”

“I’ll pay it,” she says quickly.

“None of us knows the cost,” I snap, and then hope no one notices the sharpness of my tone. “And we’re all going to have to pay our share.”

My skin has a fine flush on it from the wine, and there’s a metallic taste in my mouth. It’s nearly time to put the next part of the plan into effect. I glance around for Vivi, but she’s across the room. There’s no time to say anything to her now, even if I knew what to say.

I give Oak what I hope is an encouraging smile. I have often wondered if my past is the reason I am the way I am, if it has made me monstrous. If so, will I make a monster out of him?

Vivi won’t, I tell myself. Her job is to help him care about things other than power, and my job is to care only about power so I can carve out room for his return. With a deep breath, I head toward the doors out into the hallway. I pass the pair of knights and turn a corner, out of their sight line. I gulp down a few breaths before unlatching the windows.

I wait a few hopeful moments. If the Roach and the Ghost climb through, I can explain the crown’s location. But, instead, the doors to the banquet open, and I hear Madoc order the knights off. I move so that he can see me. When he does, he comes toward me with purpose. “Jude. I thought you came this way.”

“I needed some fresh air,” I tell him, which is indicative of how nerved up I am. I have answered the question he hasn’t yet asked.

He waves it off, though. “You should have come to me first when you found Prince Cardan. We could have negotiated from a position of strength.”

“I thought you might say something like that,” I tell him.

“What matters now is that I need to speak with him alone. I’d like you to go inside and bring him out here, so we can talk. All three of us can talk.”

I move away from the window, into the open space of the hall. The Ghost and the Roach will be here in a moment, and I don’t want Madoc to spot them. “About Oak?” I ask.

As I had hoped, Madoc follows me away from the window, frowning. “You knew?”

“That you have a plan for ruling Elfhame yourself?” I ask him. “I figured it out.”

He stares at me as though I am a stranger, but I have never felt less like one. For the first time, we are both unmasked.

“And yet you brought Prince Cardan here, right to Balekin,” he says. “Or to me? Is that it? Are we to bargain now?”

“It must be one or the other, right?” I say.

He’s growing angry. “Would you prefer no High King at all? If the crown

is destroyed, there will be war, and if there’s war, I will win it. One way or another, I will have that crown, Jude. And you stand to benefit when I do. There’s no reason to oppose me. You can have your knighthood. You can have all the things you’ve ever dreamed of.” He takes another step toward me. We are in striking distance of each other.

“You said, ‘I will have that crown.’ You,” I remind him, my hand going to the hilt of my sword. “You’ve barely spoken Oak’s name. He is just a means to an end, and that end is power. Power for you.”

“Jude—” he begins, but I cut him off.

“I’ll make a bargain. Swear to me that you’ll never raise a hand against Oak, and I’ll help. Promise me that when he comes of age, you will immediately step down as regent. You’ll give him whatever power you’ll have amassed, and you’ll do it willingly.”

Madoc’s mouth twists. His hands fist. I know he loves Oak. He loves me. I’m sure he loved my mother, too, in his own way. But he is who and what he is. I know he cannot promise.

I draw my sword, and he does, too, the scrape of metal loud in the room. I hear distant laughter, but here in the hall, we are alone.

My hands are sweating, but this has the feeling of inevitability, as though this is what I was careening toward the whole time, my whole life.

“You can’t beat me,” Madoc says, moving into a fighting stance. “I already have,” I say.

“You have no way to win.” Madoc flicks his blade, encouraging me to come toward him, as though this is just some practice bout. “What can you hope to do with one missing prince, here in Balekin’s stronghold? I will knock you down, and then I will take him from you. You could have had anything you wanted, but now you will be left with nothing.”

“Oh, yes, let me tell you my whole plan. You’ve goaded me right into it.” I make a face. “Let’s not stall anymore. This is the part where we fight.”

“At least you’re no coward.” He rushes at me with such force that even though I block the blow, I am thrown to the floor. I roll into a standing position, but I am shaken. He has never fought me like this, full out. This will be no genteel exchange of blows.

He’s the High King’s general. I knew he was better than me, but not how much better.

I cheat a glance toward the window. I can’t be stronger than him, but I don’t need to be. I just need to keep on my feet a little while longer. I strike out, hoping to catch him by surprise. He knocks me back again. I dodge and turn, but he expects the blow, and I have to stumble inelegantly back, blocking yet another heavy chop of his blade. My arms hurt from the strength

behind his blows.

This is all happening too fast.

I come in with a series of techniques he’s taught me and then use a bit of swordplay I learned from the Ghost. I feign left and then land a clever slice to his side. It’s a shallow hit, but it surprises us both when a line of red wets his coat. He thrusts toward me. I jump to one side, and he elbows me in the face, knocking me back to the ground. Blood gushes over my mouth from my nose.

I push myself dizzily to my feet.

I’m scared, no matter how I try to play it off. I was arrogant. I am trying to buy time, but one of his blows could split me in half.

“Surrender,” he tells me, sword pointed toward my throat. “It was well tried. I will forgive you, Jude, and we will go back into the banquet. You will persuade Cardan to do what I need him to. All will be as it should be.”

I spit blood on the stone tiles. His sword arm trembles a little. “You surrender,” I say.

He laughs, as though I have told a particularly rich joke. Then he stops, grimacing.

“I imagine you’re not feeling quite yourself,” I tell him.

His sword sags a little, and he looks at me in sudden comprehension. “What have you done?”

“I poisoned you. Don’t worry. It was a small enough dose. You’ll live.” “The cups of wine,” he says. “But how did you know which one I would


“I didn’t,” I tell him, thinking that he’ll be at least a little pleased by the answer, despite himself. It is the kind of strategy he likes best. “I poisoned them both.”

“You will be very sorry,” he says. The tremble is in his legs now. I know. I feel the echo of it in my own. But by now, I am used to drinking poison.

I look deep into his eyes as I sheathe my sword. “Father, I am what you made me. I’ve become your daughter after all.”

Madoc lifts his blade again, as though he’s going to rush at me one final time. But then it falls from his hand, and he falls, too, sprawling on the stone floor.

When the Ghost and the Roach come in, a few tense minutes later, they find me sitting beside him, too tired to even think of moving his body.

Wordlessly, the Roach hands me a handkerchief, and I start to wipe the blood from my nose.

“On to phase three,” the Ghost says.

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