Chapter no 9

The Cruel Prince

Taryn won’t tell me what Prince Cardan said to her. She insists that it had nothing to do with me, that he wasn’t actually breaking his promise not to hold her accountable for my bad behavior, that I should forget about her and worry about myself.

“Jude, give it up.” She sits in front of the fire in her bedroom, drinking a cup of nettle tea from a clay mug shaped like a snake, its tail coiling to make the handle. She has on her dressing gown, scarlet to match the flames in the grate. Sometimes when I look at her, it seems impossible that her face is also mine. She looks soft, pretty, like a girl in a painting. Like a girl who fits inside her own skin.

“Just tell me what he said,” I press.

“There’s nothing to tell,” Taryn says. “I know what I’m doing.”

“And what’s that?” I ask her, my eyebrows lifting, but she only sighs.

We’ve gone three rounds like this already. I keep thinking of the lazy blink of Cardan’s lashes over his coal-bright eyes. He looked gleeful, gloating, as though my fist tightening on his shirt was exactly what he would have wished. As though, if I struck him, it would be because he had made me do it. “I can annoy you in the hills and also the dales,” I say, poking her in the arm. “I will chase you from crag to crag across all three islands until you tell

me something.”

“I think we could both bear it better if no one else had to see,” she says, then takes a long pull of her tea.

“What?” I am surprised into not knowing what to say in return. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I think I could stand being teased and being made to cry if you

didn’t know about it.” She gives me a steady look, as though evaluating how much truth I can handle. “I can’t just pretend my day was fine with you as a witness to what really happened. Sometimes it makes me not like you.”

“That’s not fair!” I exclaim.

She shrugs. “I know. That’s why I’m telling you. But what Cardan said to me doesn’t matter, and I want to pretend it didn’t happen, so I need you to pretend along with me. No reminders, no questions, no cautions.”

Stung, I stand and walk to her fireplace mantel, leaning my head against the carved stone. I can’t count the number of times she’s told me that messing with Cardan and his friends is stupid. And yet, given what she’s saying now, whatever made her cry this afternoon has nothing to do with me. Which means she’s gotten into some kind of trouble all on her own.

Taryn might have a lot of advice to give; I am not sure she’s taking all of


“So what do you want me to do?” I ask.

“I want you to fix things with him,” she says. “Prince Cardan’s got all the

power. There’s no winning against him. No matter how brave or clever or even cruel you are, Jude. End this, before you get really hurt.”

I look at her uncomprehendingly. Avoiding Cardan’s wrath now seems impossible. That ship has sailed—and burned up in the harbor. “I can’t,” I tell her.

“You heard what Prince Cardan said by the river—he just wants you to give up. It’s a blow to his pride, and it hurts his status, you acting like you’re not afraid of him.” She takes my arm at the wrist, pulling me close. I can smell the sharp scent of herbs on her breath. “Tell him that he’s won and you’ve lost. They’re just words. You don’t have to mean them.”

I shake my head.

“Don’t fight him tomorrow,” she continues.

“I’m not withdrawing from the tournament,” I tell her. “Even if it wins you nothing but more woe?” she asks. “Even then,” I say.

“Do something else,” she insists. “Find a way. Fix it before it’s too late.”

I think of all the things she won’t say, all the things I wish I knew. But since she wants me to pretend everything is fine, all I can do is swallow my questions and leave her to her fire.



In my room, I find my tournament outfit spread out on my bed, scented with

verbena and lavender.

It’s a slightly padded tunic stitched with metallic thread. The pattern is of a crescent moon turned on its side like a cup, with a droplet of red falling from one corner and a dagger beneath the whole. Madoc’s crest.

I cannot put on that tunic tomorrow and fail, not without bringing disgrace on my household. And although embarrassing Madoc might give me a contrary pleasure, a small revenge for denying me knighthood, I’d embarrass myself, too.

What I should do is go back to keeping my head down. Be decent, but not memorable. Let Cardan and his friends show off. Save up my skill to surprise the Court when Madoc gives me permission to seek a knighthood. If that ever happens.

That’s what I should do.

I knock the tunic to the floor and climb under the coverlets, pulling them up over my head so that I am slightly smothered. So that I breathe in my own warm breath. I fall asleep like that.

In the afternoon, when I rise, the garment is wrinkled, and I have no one to blame but myself.

“You are a foolish child,” Tatterfell says, scraping my hair into tight warrior braids. “With a memory like that of a sparrow.”

On my way to the kitchens, I pass Madoc in the hall. He is dressed all in green, his mouth pulled into a grim line.

“Hold a moment,” he says. I do.

He frowns. “I know what it is to be young and hungry for glory.”

I bite my lip and say nothing. After all, he hasn’t asked me a question. We stand there, watching each other. His cat eyes narrow. There are so many unsaid things between us—so many reasons we can only be something like father and daughter, but never fully inhabit our roles. “You will come to understand this is for the best,” he says finally. “Enjoy your battle.”

I make a deep bow and head for the door, my trip to the kitchens abandoned. All I want to do is get away from the house, from the reminder that there is no place for me at the Court, no place for me in Faerie.

What you lack is nothing to do with experience.



The Summer Tournament is being held on the edge of a cliff on Insweal, the Isle of Woe. It’s far enough that I take a mount, a pale gray horse stabled

beside a toad. The toad watches me with golden eyes as I saddle the mare and throw myself up onto her back. I arrive at the grounds out of sorts, slightly late, anxious, and hungry.

A crowd is already gathering around the tented box where the High King Eldred and the rest of the royals will sit. Long cream-colored banners whip through the air, flying Eldred’s symbol—a tree that is half white flowers and half thorns, roots dangling beneath it and a crown atop. The uniting of the Seelie Courts, the Unseelie Courts, and the wild fey, under one crown. The dream of the Greenbriar line.

The decadent eldest son, Prince Balekin, is sprawled in a carved chair, three attendants around him. His sister Princess Rhyia, the huntress, sits beside him. Her eyes are all on the potential combatants, readying themselves on the grounds.

A wave of panicky frustration comes over me at the sight of her intent expression. I so badly wanted her to choose me to be one of her knights. And though she can’t now, a sudden awful fear that I couldn’t have impressed her comes over me. Maybe Madoc was right. Maybe I lack the instinct for dealing death.

If I don’t try too hard today, at least I never need know if I would have been good enough.

My group is to go first because we are the youngest. Still in training, using wooden swords instead of live steel, unlike those who follow us. Bouts of fighting will last the whole day, broken up by bardic performances, a few feats of clever magic, displays of archery, and other skills. I can smell spiced wine in the air, but not yet that other perfume of tournaments—fresh blood.

Fand is organizing us into rows, handing out armbands in silver and gold. Her blue skin is even more blazingly cerulean under the bright sky. Her armor is varying shades of blue as well, from oceanic to berry, with her green sash cutting across the breastplate. She will stand out no matter how she fares, which is a calculated risk. If she does well, the audience cannot fail to notice. But she’d better do well.

As I approach the other students with their practice swords, I hear my name whispered. Unnerved, I look around, only to realize I am being scrutinized in a new way. Taryn and I are always noticeable, being mortal, but what makes us stand out is also what makes us unworthy of much regard. Today, however, that’s not so. The children of Faerie seem to be holding a single indrawn breath, waiting to see what my punishment will be for putting hands on Cardan the day before. Waiting to see what I am going to do next.

I look across the field at Cardan and his friends, with silver on their arms. Cardan is wearing silver on his chest, too, a plate of gleaming steel that hooks

over his shoulders and seems more ornamental than protective. Valerian smirks at me.

I do not give him the satisfaction of smirking back.

Fand gives me a gold band and tells me where to stand. There are to be three rounds in the mock war and two sides. Each side has a cloak of hide to protect—one, that of a yellow deer; the other, that of silvery fox fur.

I drink some water out of a pewter carafe set out for participants and begin to warm up. My stomach is sour with the lack of food, but I no longer feel hungry. I feel sick, eaten up with nerves. I try to ignore everything but the exercises I move through to limber up my muscles.

And then it is time. We troop onto the field and salute the seat of the High King, although Eldred has not yet arrived. The crowd is thinner than it will be closer to sunset. Prince Dain is there, though, with Madoc beside him. Princess Elowyn strums a lute thoughtfully. Vivi and Taryn have come to watch, although I see neither Oriana nor Oak. Vivi gestures with a kebab of glistening fruit, making Princess Rhyia laugh.

Taryn watches me intently, as though trying to warn me with her gaze.

Fix it.

All through the first battle, I fight defensively. I avoid Cardan. Nor do I come near Nicasia, Valerian, or Locke, even when Valerian knocks Fand to the dirt. Even when Valerian rips down our deer hide.

Still, I do nothing.

Then we are called to the field for the second battle.

Cardan walks behind me. “You are docile today. Did your sister admonish you? She desires our approval very much.” One of his booted feet toes the clover-covered ground, kicking up a clod. “I imagine that if I asked, she’d roll with me right here until we turned her white gown green and then thank me for the honor of my favor.” He smiles, going in for the kill, leaning toward me as if confiding a secret. “Not that I’d be the first to green gown her.”

My good intentions evaporate on the wind. My blood is on fire, boiling in my veins. I do not have much power, but here is what I have—I can force his hand. Cardan might want to hurt me, but I can make him want to hurt me worse. We’re supposed to play at war. When they call us to our places, I play. I play as viciously as possible. My practice sword cracks against Cardan’s ridiculous chest plate. My shoulder bangs against Valerian’s shoulder so hard that he staggers back. I attack again and again, knocking down anyone wearing a silver armband. When the mock war is over, my eye is blackened and both of my knees are skinned and the gold side has won the second and third battles.

You’re no killer, Madoc said.

Right now I feel that I could be.

The crowd applauds, and it is as if I have suddenly woken from a dream. I forgot about them. A pixie tosses flower petals at us. From the stands, Vivi salutes me with a goblet of something as Princess Rhyia applauds politely. Madoc is no longer in the royal box. Balekin is gone, too. The High King Eldred is there, though, sitting on a slightly elevated platform, speaking with Dain, his expression remote.

I start to tremble all over, the adrenaline draining out of me. Courtiers, waiting for better battles, study my bruises and evaluate my prowess. No one seems particularly impressed. I have done my best, have fought my hardest, and it wasn’t enough. Madoc didn’t even stay to watch.

My shoulders slump.

Worse, Cardan is waiting for me when I get off the field. I am struck suddenly by his height, by the arrogant sneer he wears like a crown. He would seem like a prince even dressed in rags. Cardan grabs my face, fingers splayed against my neck. His breath is against my cheek. His other hand grabs my hair, winding it into a rope. “Do you know what mortal means? It means born to die. It means deserving of death. That’s what you are, what defines you—dying. And yet here you stand, determined to oppose me even as you rot away from the inside out, you corrupt, corrosive mortal creature. Tell me how that is. Do you really think you can win against me? Against a prince of Faerie?”

I swallow hard. “No,” I say.

His black eyes simmer with rage. “So you’re not completely lacking in some small amount of animal cunning. Good. Now, beg my forgiveness.”

I take a step back and tug, trying to wrench free of his grasp. He holds on to my braid, staring down into my face with hungry eyes and a small, awful smile. Then he opens his hand, letting me stagger free. Individual strands of hair flutter through the air.

On the periphery of my vision, I see Taryn standing with Locke, near where other knights are donning their armor. She looks at me pleadingly, as though she is the one who needs to be saved.

“Get down on your knees,” Cardan says, looking insufferably pleased with himself. His fury has transmuted into gloating. “Beg. Make it pretty. Flowery. Worthy of me.”

The other children of the Gentry are standing around in their padded tunics with their practice swords, watching, hoping my downfall will be amusing. This is the show they’ve been expecting since I stood up to him. This isn’t a mock war; this is the real thing.

“Beg?” I echo.

For a moment, he looks surprised, but that’s quickly replaced by even greater malice. “You defied me. More than once. Your only hope is to throw yourself on my mercy in front of everyone. Do it, or I will keep on hurting you until there is nothing left to hurt.”

I think of the dark shapes of the nixies in the water and the boy at the revel, howling over his torn wing. I think of Taryn’s tearstained face. I think of how Rhyia would never have chosen me, of how Madoc didn’t even wait to see the conclusion of the battle.

There’s no shame in surrender. As Taryn said, they’re just words. I don’t have to mean them. I can lie.

I start to lower myself to the ground. This will be over quickly, every word will taste like bile, and then it will be over.

When I open my mouth, though, nothing comes out. I can’t do it.

Instead, I shake my head at the thrill running through me at the sheer lunacy of what I’m about to do. It’s the thrill of leaping without being able to see the ground below you, right before you realize that’s called falling. “You think because you can humiliate me, you can control me?” I say, looking him in those black eyes. “Well, I think you’re an idiot. Since we started being tutored together, you’ve gone out of your way to make me feel like I’m less than you. And to coddle your ego, I have made myself less. I have made myself small, I have kept my head down. But it wasn’t enough to make you leave Taryn and me alone, so I’m not going to do that anymore.

“I am going to keep on defying you. I am going to shame you with my defiance. You remind me that I am a mere mortal and you are a prince of Faerie. Well, let me remind you that means you have much to lose and I have nothing. You may win in the end, you may ensorcell me and hurt me and humiliate me, but I will make sure you lose everything I can take from you on the way down. I promise you this”—I throw his own words back at him

—“this is the least of what I can do.”

Cardan looks at me as though he’s never seen me before. He looks at me as though no one has ever spoken to him like this. Maybe no one has.

I turn from him and begin walking, half-expecting Cardan to grab my shoulder and throw me to the ground, half-expecting him to find the rowan berry necklace at my throat, snap it, and speak the words that will make me crawl back to him, begging despite all my big talk. But he says nothing. I feel his gaze on my back, pricking the hairs on my neck. It is all I can do not to run.

I dare not look toward Taryn and Locke, but I catch a glimpse of Nicasia staring at me, openmouthed. Valerian looks furious, his hands fisted at his

sides in mute rage.

I stagger past the tournament tents to a stone fountain, where I splash my face with water. I bend down, starting to clean the gravel from my knees. My legs feel stiff, and I am shaking all over.

“Are you all right?” Locke asks, gazing down with his tawny fox eyes. I didn’t even hear him behind me.

I am not.

I am not all right, but he can’t know that, and he shouldn’t be asking. “What do you care?” I say, spitting the words out. The way he’s looking at

me makes me feel more pathetic than ever.

He leans against the fountain, letting a slow, lazy smile grow on his mouth. “It’s funny, that’s all.”

“Funny?” I echo, furious. “You think that was funny?”

He shakes his head, still smiling. “No. It’s funny how you get under his skin.”

At first, I’m not sure I heard him right. I almost ask whom he’s talking about, because I can’t quite believe he’s admitting that high and mighty Cardan is affected by anything. “Like a splinter?” I say.

“Of iron. No one else bothers him quite the way that you do.” He picks up a towel and wets it, then kneels down beside me and carefully wipes my face. I suck in a breath when the cold cloth touches the sensitive part of my eye, but he is far gentler than I would have been to myself. His face is solemn and focused on what he’s doing. He doesn’t seem to notice my studying him, his long face and sharp chin, his curling red-brown hair, the way his eyelashes catch the light.

Then he does notice. He’s looking at me, and I’m looking back at him, and it’s the strangest thing, because I thought Locke would never notice anyone like me. He is noticing, though. He’s smiling like he did that night at the Court, as though we shared a secret. He’s smiling as if we’re sharing another one.

“Keep it up,” he says.

I wonder at those words. Can he really mean them?

As I make my way back to the tournament and my sisters, I can’t stop thinking of Cardan’s shocked face, nor can I stop considering Locke’s smile. I am not altogether sure which is more thrilling and which more dangerous.

You'll Also Like