The Cruel Prince

stand in the middle of Target, pushing the cart while Oak and Vivi pick out bedsheets and lunch boxes, skinny jeans and sandals. Oak looks around in mild confusion and pleasure. He keeps picking up things, puzzling over them, and then setting them down again. In the candy aisle, he adds bars of chocolate to the cart, along with jelly beans, lollipops, and chunks of candied ginger. Vivi doesn’t stop him, so I don’t, either.

It’s odd to see Oak with his horns glamoured away, his ears looking as round as mine. It’s odd to see him in the toy aisle, trying out a scooter with an owl-shaped backpack over one arm.

I expected that it would be hard to persuade Oriana to let him go with Vivi, but after Cardan’s coronation, she agreed that Oak being away from the Court for a few years was for the best. Balekin is imprisoned in a tower. Madoc woke in a rage, only to find that his moment for seizing the crown was past.

“So he’s really your brother, right?” Heather asks Vivi as Oak kicks off on the scooter, flying through the greeting card aisle. “You could tell me if he was your son.”

Vivi laughs delightedly. “I’ve got secrets, but that’s not one of them.” Heather wasn’t thrilled about Vivienne showing up with a child and a half-

baked explanation about why he had to live with her, but she didn’t kick them out. Heather’s sofa pulled out into a bed, and they agreed he could sleep there until Vivi found a job and they were able to afford a larger apartment.

I know Vivi isn’t going to get conventional work, but she will be fine. She will be better than fine. In another world, given our parents and our past, I would have kept on encouraging Vivi to trust Heather with the truth. But for

now, if she feels like she has to keep the deception going, I am hardly in a position to contradict her.

As we stand in the checkout line and Vivi pays for her haul with leaves glamoured to seem like bills, I think again of the aftermath of the banquet-turned-coronation. Of the blur of the Folk eating and joking. Of everyone marveling over Oak, who appeared both pleased and panicked. Of Oriana, clearly not sure whether to congratulate me or to slap me. Of Taryn, quiet, considering, holding tightly to Locke’s hand. Of Nicasia giving Cardan a lingering kiss on his royal cheek.

I have done the thing, and now I must live with what I have done.

I have lied and I have betrayed and I have triumphed. If only there was someone to congratulate me.

Heather sighs and smiles dreamily at Vivi as we load our purchases into the trunk of Heather’s Prius. Back at the apartment, Heather takes some premade pizza dough out of her fridge and explains how to make personal pies.

“Mom will visit me, won’t she?” Oak asks as he places pieces of chocolate and marshmallows on top of his dough.

I squeeze his arm as Heather sticks the food in the oven. “Of course she will. Think of being here with Vivi as an apprenticeship. You learn what you need to know, and then you come home.”

“How will I know when I’ve learned it, since I don’t know it now?” he asks.

The question sounds like a riddle. “Come back when returning feels like a hard choice instead of an easy one,” I answer finally. Vivi looks over, as though she’s overheard. Her expression is thoughtful.

I eat a slice of Oak’s pizza and lick the chocolate off my fingers. It’s sweet enough to make me wince, but I don’t mind. I just want to sit with them a few more moments before I have to fly back to Faerie alone.



When I dismount from my ragwort steed, I head to the palace. I have rooms there now—a vast sitting area, a bedroom behind latching double doors, and a dressing area with empty closets. All I have to hang in them is what I took out of Madoc’s estates and a few things I got at Target.

Here is where I will live, to keep Cardan close, to use my power over him to ensure things go smoothly. The Court of Shadows will grow beneath the castle, fed on being both the High King’s spies and his keepers.

They’ll have their gold, straight from the king’s hand.

What I have not done, not really, is spoken with Cardan. I left him with only a few commands, the familiar hatred in his face enough to make a coward out of me. But I am going to have to talk to him eventually. There is no profit in my putting it off any longer.

Still, it is with a heavy heart and leaden steps that I make my way to the royal rooms. I knock, only to be told by a prim-seeming manservant with flowers braided in his blond beard that the High King has gone to the great hall.

I find him there, lounging on the throne of Faerie, looking out from the dais. The room is empty except for us. My footfalls echo as I move across the floor.

Cardan is dressed in breeches, a waistcoat, and another coat over that, fitted in his shoulders, tapered in sharply at the waist and falling to his midthigh. The cloth is uncut velvet in a deep burgundy, with ivory velvet at the lapels, shoulders, and waistcoat. Stitching in golden thread covers the whole, matched by golden buttons and golden buckles on his tall boots. At his throat is a ruff of pale owl feathers.

His black hair falls in opulent curls around his cheeks. The shadows bring out the sharpness of his bones, the length of his lashes, the merciless beauty of his face.

I am horrified by how much he looks like the King of Faerie.

I am horrified by my own impulse to bend my knee to him, my own desire to let him touch my head with a ringed hand.

What have I done? For so long, there was no one I trusted less. And now I must contend with him, must match my will to his. His oath does not seem enough of an antidote against his cleverness.

What in the world have I done?

I keep walking, though. I keep my expression as cold as I know how. He’s the one who smiles, but his smile is colder than any stiff face could be. “A year and a day,” he calls out. “Blink and that will be over. And what will you do then?”

I draw closer to him. “I hope I can persuade you to remain king until Oak is ready to return.”

“Maybe I will acquire a taste for ruling,” he says coolly. “Maybe I won’t ever want to give it up.”

“I don’t think so,” I say, although I’ve always known that was one possibility. I’ve always known that removing him from the throne might be harder than putting him there.

I have a bargain with him for a year and a day. I have a year and a day to

come to a bargain for longer than that. And not for one minute more.

His grin widens, shows teeth. “I don’t think I will be a good king. I never wanted to be one, certainly not a good one. You made me your puppet. Very well, Jude, daughter of Madoc, I will be your puppet. You rule. You contend with Balekin, with Roiben, with Orlagh of the Undersea. You be my seneschal, do the work, and I will drink wine and make my subjects laugh. I may be the useless shield you put in front of your brother, but don’t expect me to start being useful.”

I expected something else, a direct threat, perhaps. Somehow, this is worse.

He rises from the throne. “Come, have a seat.” His voice is replete with danger, lush with menace. The flowering branches have sprouted thorns so thickly that petals are barely visible.

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” he asks. “What you sacrificed everything for. Go on. It’s all yours.”

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