Chapter no 4

The Cruel Prince

As dawn breaks, I open the windows to my bedroom and let the last of the cool night air flow in as I strip off my Court dress. I feel hot all over. My skin feels too tight, and my heart won’t stop racing.

I’ve been to Court before many times. I’ve been witness to more awfulness than wings being torn or my person insulted. Faeries make up for their inability to lie with a panoply of deceptions and cruelties. Twisted words, pranks, omissions, riddles, scandals, not to mention their revenges upon one another for ancient, half-remembered slights. Storms are less fickle than they are, seas less capricious.

Like, for example, as a redcap, Madoc needs bloodshed the way a mermaid needs the salt spray of the sea. After every battle, he ritually dips his hood into the blood of his enemies. I’ve seen the hood, kept under glass in the armory. The fabric is stiff and stained a brown so deep it’s almost black, except for a few smears of green.

Sometimes I go down and stare at it, trying to see my parents in the tide lines of dried blood. I want to feel something, something besides a vague queasiness. I want to feel more, but every time I look at it, I feel less.

I think about going to the armory now, but I don’t. I stand in front of my window and imagine myself a fearless knight, imagine myself a witch who hid her heart in her finger and then chopped her finger off.

“I’m so tired,” I say out loud. “So tired.”

I sit there for a long time, watching the rising sun gild the sky, listening to the waves crash as the tide goes out, when a creature flies up to alight on the edge of my window. At first it seems like an owl, but it’s got hob eyes. “Tired of what, sweetmeat?” it asks me.

I sigh and answer honestly for once. “Of being powerless.” The hob studies my face, then flies off into the night.



I sleep the day away and wake disoriented, battling my way out of the long, embroidered curtains around my bed. Drool has dried along one of my cheeks.

I find bathwater waiting for me, but it has gone tepid. Servants must have come and gone. I climb in anyway and splash my face. Living in Faerie, it’s impossible not to notice that everyone else smells like verbena or crushed pine needles, dried blood or milkweed. I smell like pit sweat and sour breath unless I scrub myself clean.

When Tatterfell comes in to light the lamps, she finds me dressing for a lecture, which begins in the late afternoons and stretches on into some evenings. I wear gray leather boots and a tunic with Madoc’s crest—a dagger, a crescent moon turned on its side so it rests like a cup, and a single drop of blood falling from one corner embroidered in silk thread.

Downstairs, I find Taryn at the banquet table, alone, nursing a cup of nettle tea and picking at a bannock. Today, she does not suggest anything will be fun.

Madoc insists—perhaps out of guilt or shame—that we be treated like the children of Faerie. That we take the same lessons, that we be given whatever they have. Changelings have been brought to the High Court before, but none of them has been raised like Gentry.

He doesn’t understand how much that makes them loathe us.

Not that I am not grateful. I like the lessons. Answering the lecturers cleverly is something no one can take from me, even if the lecturers themselves occasionally pretend otherwise. I will take a frustrated nod in place of effusive praise. I will take it and be glad because it means I can belong whether they like it or not.

Vivi used to go with us, but then she became bored and didn’t bother. Madoc raged, but since his approval of a thing only makes her despise it, all his railing just made her more determined to never, ever go back. She has tried to persuade us to stay home with her, but if Taryn and I cannot manage the machinations of the children of Faerie without quitting our lessons or running to Madoc, how will he ever believe we can manage the Court, where those same machinations will play out on a grander and more deadly scale?

Taryn and I set off, swinging our baskets. We don’t have to leave Insmire

to get to the High King’s palace, but we do skirt the edge of two other tiny islands, Insmoor, Isle of Stone, and Insweal, Isle of Woe. All three are connected by half-submerged rocky paths and stones large enough that it’s possible to leap your way from one to the next. A herd of stags is swimming toward Insmoor, seeking the best grazing. Taryn and I walk past the Lake of Masks and through the far corner of the Milkwood, picking our way past the pale, silvery trunks and bleached leaves. From there, we spot mermaids and merrows sunning themselves near craggy caves, their scales reflecting the amber glow of the late-afternoon sun.

All the children of the Gentry, regardless of age, are taught by lecturers from all over the kingdom on the grounds of the palace. Some afternoons we sit in groves carpeted with emerald moss, and other evenings we spend in high towers or up in trees. We learn about the movements of constellations in the sky, the medicinal and magical properties of herbs, the languages of birds and flowers and people as well as the language of the Folk (though it occasionally twists in my mouth), the composition of riddles, and how to walk soft-footed over leaves and brambles to leave neither trace nor sound. We are instructed in the finer points of the harp and the lute, the bow and the blade. Taryn and I watch them as they practice enchantments. For a break, we all play at war in a green field with a broad arc of trees.

Madoc trained me to be formidable even with a wooden sword. Taryn isn’t bad, either, even though she doesn’t bother practicing anymore. At the Summer Tournament, in only a few days, our mock war will take place in front of the royal family. With Madoc’s endorsement, one of the princes or princesses might choose to grant me knighthood and take me into their personal guard. It would be a kind of power, a kind of protection.

And with it, I could protect Taryn, too.

We arrive at school. Prince Cardan, Locke, Valerian, and Nicasia are already sprawled in the grass with a few other faeries. A girl with deer horns

—Poesy—is giggling over something Cardan has said. They do not so much as look at us as we spread our blanket and set out our notebooks and pens and pots of ink.

My relief is immense.

Our lesson involves the history of the delicately negotiated peace between Orlagh, Queen of the Undersea, and the various faerie kings and queens of the land. Nicasia is Orlagh’s daughter, sent to be fostered in the High King’s Court. Many odes have been composed to Queen Orlagh’s beauty, although, if she’s anything like her daughter, not to her personality.

Nicasia gloats through the lesson, proud of her heritage. When the instructor moves on to Lord Roiben of the Court of Termites, I lose interest.

My thoughts drift. Instead, I find myself thinking through combinations— strike, thrust, parry, block. I grip my pen as though it were the hilt of a blade and forget to take notes.

As the sun dips low in the sky, Taryn and I unpack our baskets from home, which contain bread, butter, cheese, and plums. I butter a piece of bread hungrily.

Passing us, Cardan kicks dirt onto my food right before I put it into my mouth. The other faeries laugh.

I look up to see him watching me with cruel delight, like a raptor bird trying to decide whether to be bothered devouring a small mouse. He’s wearing a high-collared tunic embroidered with thorns, his fingers heavy with rings. His sneer is well-practiced.

I grit my teeth. I tell myself that if I let the taunts roll off me, he will lose interest. He will go away. I can endure this a little longer, a few more days.

“Something the matter?” Nicasia asks sweetly, wandering up and draping her arm over Cardan’s shoulder. “Dirt. It’s what you came from, mortal. It’s what you’ll return to soon enough. Take a big bite.”

“Make me,” I say before I can stop myself. Not the greatest comeback, but my palms begin to sweat. Taryn looks startled.

“I could, you know,” says Cardan, grinning as though nothing would please him more. My heart speeds. If I weren’t wearing a string of rowan berries, he could ensorcell me so that I thought dirt was some kind of delicacy. Only Madoc’s position would give him reason to hesitate. I do not move, do not touch the necklace hidden under the bodice of my tunic, the one that I hope will stop any glamour from working. The one I hope he doesn’t discover and rip from my throat.

I glance in the direction of the day’s lecturer, but the elderly phooka has his nose buried in a book.

Since Cardan’s a prince, it’s more than likely no one has ever cautioned him, has ever stayed his hand. I never know how far he’ll go, and I never know how far our instructors will let him.

“You don’t want that, do you?” Valerian asks with mock sympathy as he kicks more dirt onto our lunch. I didn’t even see him come over. Once, Valerian stole a silver pen of mine, and Madoc replaced it with a ruby-studded one from his own desk. This threw Valerian into such a rage that he cracked me in the back of the head with his wooden practice sword. “What if we promise to be nice to you for the whole afternoon if you eat everything in your baskets?” His smile is wide and false. “Don’t you want us for friends?”

Taryn looks down at her lap. No, I want to say. We don’t want you for friends.

I don’t answer, but I don’t look down, either. I meet Cardan’s gaze. There is nothing I can say to make them stop, and I know it. I have no power here. But today I can’t seem to choke down my anger at my own impotence.

Nicasia pulls a pin from my hair, causing one of my braids to fall against my neck. I swat at her hand, but it happens too fast.

“What’s this?” She’s holding up the golden pin, with a tiny cluster of filigree hawthorn berries at the top. “Did you steal it? Did you think it would make you beautiful? Did you think it would make you as we are?”

I bite the inside of my cheek. Of course I want to be like them. They’re beautiful as blades forged in some divine fire. They will live forever. Valerian’s hair shines like polished gold. Nicasia’s limbs are long and perfectly shaped, her mouth the pink of coral, her hair the color of the deepest, coldest part of the sea. Fox-eyed Locke, standing silently behind Valerian, his expression schooled to careful indifference, has a chin as pointed as the tips of his ears. And Cardan is even more beautiful than the rest, with black hair as iridescent as a raven’s wing and cheekbones sharp enough to cut out a girl’s heart. I hate him more than all the others. I hate him so much that sometimes when I look at him, I can hardly breathe.

“You’ll never be our equal,” Nicasia says. Of course I won’t.

“Oh, come on,” Locke says with a careless laugh, his hand going around Nicasia’s waist. “Let’s leave them to their misery.”

“Jude’s sorry,” Taryn says quickly. “We’re both really sorry.”

“She can show us how sorry she is,” Cardan drawls. “Tell her she doesn’t belong in the Summer Tournament.”

“Afraid I’ll win?” I ask, which isn’t smart.

“It’s not for mortals,” he informs us, voice chilly. “Withdraw, or wish that you had.”

I open my mouth, but Taryn speaks before I can. “I’ll talk to her about it.

It’s nothing, just a game.”

Nicasia gives my sister a magnanimous smile. Valerian leers at Taryn, his eyes lingering on her curves. “It’s all just a game.”

Cardan’s gaze meets mine, and I know he isn’t finished with me, not by a long shot.

“Why did you dare them like that?” Taryn asks when they’ve walked back to their own merry luncheon, all spread out for them. “Talking back to him— that’s just stupid.”

Make me. Afraid I’ll win?

“I know,” I tell her. “I’ll shut up. I just—I got angry.”

“You’re better off being scared,” she advises. And then, shaking her head, she packs up our ruined food. My stomach growls, and I try to ignore it.

They want me to be afraid, I know that. During the mock war that very afternoon, Valerian trips me, and Cardan whispers foul things in my ear. I head home with bruises on my skin from kicks, from falls.

What they don’t realize is this: Yes, they frighten me, but I have always been scared, since the day I got here. I was raised by the man who murdered my parents, reared in a land of monsters. I live with that fear, let it settle into my bones, and ignore it. If I didn’t pretend not to be scared, I would hide under my owl-down coverlets in Madoc’s estate forever. I would lie there and scream until there was nothing left of me. I refuse to do that. I will not do that.

Nicasia’s wrong about me. I don’t desire to do as well in the tournament as one of the fey. I want to win. I do not yearn to be their equal.

In my heart, I yearn to best them.

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