Chapter no 30

The Cruel Prince

When I rejoin the feast, everyone is taking their place at the long table. I walk straight to Balekin and curtsy.

“My lord,” I say, pitching my voice low. “Madoc asked me to tell you that he is delayed and to begin without him. He wishes you not to worry, but some of Dain’s spies are here. He will send you word when he’s caught or killed them.”

Balekin regards me with slightly pursed lips and narrowed eyes. He takes in whatever traces of blood I couldn’t wash from my nostrils and my teeth, whatever sweat I couldn’t wipe away. Madoc slumbers in Cardan’s old room, and by my calculations, we have at least an hour before he wakes. It feels as though if Balekin looked carefully, he could see that on my face, too.

“You have been more helpful than I would have guessed,” Balekin says, resting a hand lightly on my shoulder. He seems to have forgotten how furious he was when I first came in with Cardan and expects me to forget it, too. “Continue and you will find yourself rewarded. Would you like to live as one of us? Would you like to be one of us?”

Could the High King of Faerie really give me that? Could he make me something other than human, something other than mortal?

I think of Valerian’s words when he tried to glamour me into jumping out of the tower. Being born mortal is like being born already dead.

He sees the look on my face and smiles, sure that he has ferreted out the secret desire of my heart.

And, indeed, as I walk to my seat, I am troubled. I should feel triumphant, but, instead, I feel sick. Outmaneuvering Madoc wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I wanted it to be, especially since I was able to do it because he never thought

of me as someone who would betray him. Perhaps years from now, my faith in this plan will prove justified, but until then I will have to live with this acid in the pit of my stomach.

The future of Faerie depends on my playing a long game and playing it perfectly.

I spot Vivi, sitting between Nicasia and Lord Severin, and I give her a quick smile. She gives me a grim one in return.

Lord Roiben looks at me askance. Beside him, the green pixie whispers something in his ear, and he shakes his head. At the other end of the table, Locke kisses Taryn’s hand. Queen Orlagh looks over at me curiously. There are only three mortals here—Taryn, me, and the redhead with Severin—and from the way she regards us, Orlagh is imagining mice presiding over a convocation of cats.

Above hangs a chandelier made from thin sheets of mica. Tiny glowing faeries are trapped inside for the purpose of adding a warm glow to the room. Occasionally, they fly, making shadows dance.

“Jude,” Locke says, touching my arm, startling me. His fox eyes crinkle in amusement. “I admit, I am a little jealous to see Cardan parading you around on his arm.”

I take a step back. “I don’t have time for this.”

“I liked you, you know,” he says. “I like you still.”

For a moment, I wonder what would happen if I hauled off and punched him.

“Go away, Locke,” I tell him.

His smile returns. “The thing I like best is how you never do what I imagine you will. For instance, I didn’t think you’d duel over me.”

“I didn’t.” I pull away from him and head to the table, a little unsteady on my feet.

“There you are,” Cardan says as I take my place beside him. “How has the night been going for you? Mine has been full of dull conversations about how my head is going to find itself on a spike.”

My hands shake as I take my place. I tell myself that it’s just the poison. My mouth is dry. I find myself without the wit for verbal sparring. Servants set down dishes—roasted goose shining with currant glaze, oysters and stewed ramps, acorn cakes and whole fish stuffed with rose hips. Wine is poured, dark green with pieces of gold floating in it. I watch them sink to the bottom of the glass, shining sediment.

“Have I told you how hideous you look tonight?” Cardan asks, leaning back in the elaborately carved chair, the warmth of his words turning the question into something like a compliment.

“No,” I say, glad to be annoyed back into the present. “Tell me.”

“I cannot,” he says, then frowns. “Jude?” I may never be used to the sound of my name on his lips. His brows draw together. “There’s a bruise coming up on your jaw.”

I take a deep drink of water. “I’m fine,” I tell him. It’s not long now.

Balekin stands and raises his glass.

I shove back my chair, so that I am on my feet when the explosion happens. For a moment, everything is so loud that it feels like the room is tilting sideways. The Folk scream. Crystal goblets fall and shatter.

The Bomb has struck.

In the confusion, a single black bolt flies from a shadowed alcove and sinks into the wooden table right in front of Cardan.

Balekin leaps to his feet. “There,” he shouts. “The assassin!” Knights run toward the Roach, who leaps out of the gloom and shoots again.

Another bolt flies toward Cardan, who pretends to be too stunned to move, just the way we practiced. The Roach explained to Cardan in great detail how it would be much safer to be still, much easier to miss him that way.

What we didn’t count on is Balekin. He knocks Cardan out of the chair, throws him to the floor, and covers Cardan’s body with his own. As I stare at them, I realize how little I’ve understood their relationship. Because, yes, Balekin hasn’t noticed that the Ghost has climbed onto the ledge with the Blood Crown. Yes, he sent his knights after the Roach, allowing the Bomb to bar the doors of this room.

But he has also reminded Cardan of why not to go forward with this plan.

I have been thinking of Balekin as the brother Cardan hated, as the brother who’d murdered their whole family. I’d forgotten that Balekin is Cardan’s family. Balekin is the person who raised him when Dain plotted against him, when his father sent him from the palace. Balekin is all he has left.

And, although I am sure Balekin would make for a terrible king, one who would hurt Cardan along with many others—I am equally sure that he would give Cardan power. Cardan would be allowed to be cruel, so long as it was clear that Balekin was crueler.

Putting the crown on Balekin’s head was a safe bet. Much safer than trusting me, than believing in some future Oak. He’s pledged himself to me. I just need to take care he doesn’t find some way around my commands.

I am a beat behind, and it’s harder to push through the crowd than I thought, so I am not where I told the Ghost I would be. When I look up at the ledge, he’s there, moving out of shadow. He throws the crown, but not to me. The Ghost tosses the crown to my identical twin. It falls at Taryn’s feet.

Vivi has taken Oak’s hand. Lord Roiben is pushing through the crowd. Taryn picks up the crown.

“Give it to Vivi,” I call to her. The Ghost, realizing his mistake, draws his crossbow and points it at my sister, but there’s no way to shoot his way out of this. She gives me a terrible, betrayed look.

Cardan struggles to his feet. Balekin is up, too, striding across the room. “Child, if you do not give that to me, I will cut you in half,” Balekin tells

Taryn. “I will be the High King, and when I am, I will punish any who inconvenienced me.”

She holds it out, looking between Balekin and Vivi and me. Then she looks at all the lords and ladies watching her.

“Give me my crown,” Balekin says, walking toward her.

Lord Roiben steps into Balekin’s path. He presses his hand to Balekin’s chest. “Wait.” He hasn’t drawn a blade, but I see the shine of knives under his coat.

Balekin tries to push Roiben’s hand away, but he does not move. The Ghost has his crossbow trained on Balekin, and every eye in the room is watching him. Queen Orlagh is several steps away.

Violence hangs heavily in the air.

I move toward Taryn to get in front of her.

If Balekin draws a weapon, if he throws away diplomacy and simply charges, the room seems ready to explode into bloodshed. Some will fight on his side, some against. No vows to the crown matter now, and watching him murder his own family hasn’t left anyone feeling safe. He has brought the lords and ladies of Faerie here to win them over; even he seems to see that more murder is unlikely to do that.

Besides, the Ghost can shoot him before he gets to Taryn, and he wears no armor under his clothes. No matter how heavy the embroidery, it will not save him from a bolt to the heart.

“She’s only a mortal girl,” he says.

“This is a lovely banquet, Balekin, son of Eldred,” Queen Orlagh says. “But sadly lacking in amusements before now. Let this be our entertainment. After all, the crown is secure in this room, is it not? And you or your younger brother are the only ones who can wear it. Let the girl choose whom she will give it to. What does it matter, if neither of you will crown the other?”

I am surprised. I thought Queen Orlagh was his ally, but then I suppose Nicasia’s friendship with Cardan might have made her favor him. Or perhaps she favors neither of them and only wants the sea to have greater power, by diminishing the power of the land.

“This is ridiculous,” he says. “What of the explosion? Didn’t that entertain

you sufficiently?”

“It certainly piqued my interest,” Lord Roiben says. “You seem to have lost your general somewhere as well. Your rule hasn’t even formally begun, but it certainly appears chaotic.”

I turn to Taryn and close my fingers over the cool metal of the crown. Up close, it is exquisite. The leaves seem to grow out of the dark gold, to be living things, their stems crossing over one another in a delicate knotwork.

“Please,” I say. There is still so much that’s bad between us. So much anger and betrayal and jealousy.

“What are you doing?” Taryn hisses at me. Behind her, Locke is looking at me with an odd gleam in his eyes. My story just got more interesting, and I know how much he loves story above all else.

“The best I can,” I say.

I tug, and for a long moment, Taryn holds fast. Then she opens her hand, and I stagger back with the crown.

Vivi has brought Oak as close as she dares. Oriana stands with the crowd, clasping and unclasping her hands. She must notice Madoc’s absence, must be wondering what I meant when I spoke of a price.

“Prince Cardan,” I say. “This is for you.”

The crowd parts to let him through, the other key player in this drama. He walks to stand to one side of me and Oak.

“Stop!” Balekin shouts. “Stop them immediately.” He draws a blade, clearly no longer interested in playing politics. Around the room, more swords are unsheathed in a terrible echo of his. I can hear the hum of enchanted steel in the air.

I reach for Nightfell at the moment the Ghost lets his bolt fly.

Balekin staggers back. I hear the sound of indrawn breaths all around the room. Shooting the king, even if he’s not wearing a crown, is no small thing. Then, as Balekin’s sword falls to the ancient rug, I see where he was shot.

His hand is pinioned to the dining table by a crossbow bolt. One that appears to be iron.

“Cardan,” Balekin calls. “I know you. I know that you’d prefer I did the difficult work of ruling while you enjoyed the power. I know that you despise mortals and ruffians and fools. Come, I have not always danced to your piping, but you haven’t the stomach to truly cross me. Bring me the crown.”

I gather Oak close to me and put the crown into his hands, so that he can see it. So that he can get used to holding it. Vivi pats him encouragingly on his back.

“Bring me the crown, Cardan,” Balekin says.

Prince Cardan turns on his elder brother the same cool and calculated gaze

with which he has regarded so many other creatures before he’s torn the wings from their back, before he’s cast them into rivers or sent them from the Court entirely. “No, brother. I do not think that I will. I think that if I did not have another reason to cross you, I would do it for spite.”

Oak looks up at me, searching for confirmation that he’s doing okay in the face of all this shouting. I nod with an encouraging smile.

“Show Oak,” I whisper to Cardan. “Show him what he’s supposed to do.

Kneel down.”

“They’re going to think—” he starts, but I interrupt him.

“Just do it.”

Cardan kneels, and a hush goes through the crowd. Swords are returned to sheaths. Movements slow.

“Oh, this is amusing,” says Lord Roiben in a low voice. “Who might that child be? Or whose?” He and Queen Annet share a very Unseelie smile.

“See?” Cardan says to Oak, and then makes an impatient gesture. “Now the crown.”

I look around at the lords and ladies of Faerie. Not one of their faces is friendly. All of them appear wary, waiting. Balekin’s expression is wild with fury, and he pulls against the bolt, as though he might rip his hand in half before he allowed this to happen. Oak takes a hesitant step toward Cardan, then another.

“Phase four,” Cardan whispers to me, still believing we’re on the same side.

I think of Madoc, dozing away upstairs, all his dreams of murder. I think of Oriana and Oak being forced apart for years. I think of Cardan and how he will hate me. I think of what it means to make myself the villain of the piece. “For the next full minute, I command you not to move,” I whisper back.

Cardan goes utterly still.

“Go ahead,” Vivi says to Oak. “Just like we practiced.”

And with that, Oak puts the crown down on Cardan’s head, to rest on his brow. “I crown you.” Oak’s little-kid voice is uncertain. “King. High King of Faerie.” His eyes go to Vivi, to Oriana. He’s waiting for one of them to tell him he did well, that he is done.

People gasp. Balekin gives a howl of fury. There is laughter and outrage and delight. Everyone likes a surprise, and the Folk like one more than almost anything else.

Cardan looks at me with helpless rage. Then, the full minute of my command up, he rises slowly to his feet. The fury in his eyes is familiar, the glitter of them like banked fire, like coals burning hotter than flames ever could. This time I deserve it. I promised he was going to be able to walk away

from the Court and all its manipulations. I promised he would be free from all this. I lied.

It’s not that I don’t want Oak to be the High King. I do. He will be. But there’s only one way to make sure the throne remains ready for him while he learns everything he needs to know—and that’s if someone else occupies it. Seven years and Cardan can step down, abdicate in Oak’s favor and do whatever he wants. But until then, he’s going to have to keep my brother’s throne warm.

Lord Roiben sinks to one knee, as he promised. “My king,” he says. I wonder what that promise will cost. I wonder what he will ask us for, now that he has helped give Cardan a crown.

And then the cry goes up around the room, from Queen Annet to Queen Orlagh and Lord Severin. From the other side, Taryn stares at me, clearly shocked. To her, I must seem mad, to put someone I despise on the throne, but there is no way for me to explain myself. I sink to my knees along with everyone else, and so does she.

All my promises have come due.

For a long moment, Cardan just looks around the room, but he has little choice, and he must know it. “Rise,” he says, and we do.

I step back, fading into the throng.

Cardan has been a prince of Faerie all his life. No matter what he wants, he knows what’s expected of him. He knows how to charm a crowd, how to entertain. He orders the broken glass cleared away. He has new goblets brought out, new wine poured. The toast he gives—to surprises and to the benefits of being too drunk to show up for the first coronation—causes all the lords and ladies to laugh. And if I notice that his hand grips his wineglass tightly enough to turn his knuckles white, then I imagine I am the only one who does.

Yet I am surprised when he turns to me, eyes blazing. It feels as though the room is empty but for us. He lifts his glass anew, mouth curving in a mockery of a smile. “And to Jude, who gave me a gift tonight. One that I plan to repay in kind.”

I try not to visibly flinch as glasses lift around me. Crystal rings. More wine flows. More laughter sounds.

The Bomb elbows me in the side. “We came up with your code name,” she mouths. I hadn’t even seen her come in past the locked doors.

“What?” I feel as tired as I have ever felt, and yet, for seven years, I will not be able to truly rest.

I expect her to say The Liar. She gives me a tricksy grin, full of secrets. “What else? The Queen.”

It turns out I still don’t know how to laugh.

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