Chapter no 10

The Queen of Nothing (The Folk of the Air, 3)

A‌fter my visit to Grimsen, I tromp back into the woods to do the promised foraging with satisfying aggressiveness, collecting rowan berries, wood sorrel, nettles, a bit of deathsweet, and enormous cep mushrooms. I kick a rock, sending it skittering deeper into the woods. Then I kick another. It takes a lot of rocks before I feel even a little bit better.

I am no closer to finding a way to get out of here and no clearer on my father’s plans. The only thing I am closer to is getting caught.

with that grim thought in mind, I discover Madoc sitting by the fire outside the tent, cleaning and sharpening the set of daggers he keeps on his person. Habit urges me to help him with the job, and I have to remind myself that Taryn wouldn’t do that.

“Come sit,” he urges, patting a bare side of a log on which he’s perched. “You aren’t used to campaigning, and you’ve been thrust into the thick of it.”

Does he suspect me? I sit, resting my overfull basket near the fire, and reassure myself that he wouldn’t sound nearly as friendly if he thought he was talking to Jude. I know I don’t have long, though, so I chance it and ask him what I want to ask. “Do you really think you can defeat him?”

He laughs as though it’s the question of a small child. If you could reach your hand up far enough, could you plucP the moon from the sPy? “I wouldn’t play the game if I couldn’t win.”

I feel oddly emboldened by his laughter. He really believes that I’m Taryn and that I know nothing of war. “But how?”

“I will spare you the whole of the strategy,” he says. “But I am going to challenge him to a duel—and after I win, I will split his melon of a head.”

“A duel?” I am flummoxed. “why would he fight you?” Cardan is the High King. He has armies to stand between them.

Madoc grins. “For love,” he says. “And for duty.”

“Love of whom?” I can’t believe that Taryn would be any less confused than I am right now.

“There is no banquet too abundant for a starving man,” he says.

I don’t know what to say to that. After a moment, he takes pity on me. “I know you don’t care for lessons on tactics, but I think this one will appeal even to you. For what we want most, we will take almost any chance. There is a prophecy that he would make a poor king. It hangs over his head, but he believes he can charm his way free of fate. Let’s see him try. I am going to give him a chance to prove he’s a good ruler.”

“And then?” I prompt.

But he only laughs again. “Then the Folk will call you Princess Taryn.”

All my life I have heard of the great conquests of Faerie. As one might expect of an immortal people with few births, most battles are highly formalized, as are lines of succession. The Folk like to avoid all- out war, which means it’s not unusual to settle an issue with some mutually agreed-upon contest. Still, Cardan never cared much for sword fighting and isn’t particularly good at it. why would he agree to a duel?

If I ask that, though, I am terrified Madoc will know me. Yet I must say something. I can’t just sit here staring at him with my mouth hanging open.

“Jude got control of Cardan somehow,” I pose. “Maybe you could do the same and—”

He shakes his head. “Look what became of your sister. whatever power she had, he took back from her. No, I don’t intend to continue even the pretense of serving any longer. Now I would rule.” He stops sharpening his dagger and looks over at me with a dangerous gleam in his eye. “I gave Jude chance after chance to be a help to the family.

Every opportunity to tell me the game she was playing. Had she done so, things would have come out very different.”

A shiver goes through me. Does he guess I am sitting beside him? “Jude is pretty sad,” I say in what I hope is a neutral way. “At least

according to Vivi.”

“And you do not wish me to punish her further when I am High King, is that it?” he asks. “It’s not as though I am not proud. what she achieved was no small thing. She’s perhaps the most like me of all my children. And like children the world over, she was rebellious, and her grasp exceeded her reach. But you …”

“Me?” My gaze goes to the fire. It’s jarring to hear him talk about me, but the idea of hearing something meant for Taryn alone is worse. I feel as though I am taking something from her. I can think of no way to stop it, though, no way that doesn’t involve giving myself away.

He reaches over to grip my shoulder. It would be reassuring, except that the pressure is a little too hard, his claws a little too sharp. This is the moment he’s going to grab me by the throat and tell me I am caught. My heart speeds.

“You must have felt as though I favored her, despite her ingratitude,” he says. “But it was only that I understood her better. And yet, you and I have something in common—we both made a poor marriage.”

I give him a sideways look, relief and incredulity warring with each other. Is he really saying his marriage to our mother was like Taryn’s marriage to Locke?

He draws away from me to add another log to the fire. “And both ended tragically.”

I suck in a breath. “You don’t really think …” But I don’t know what lie to give. I don’t even know if Taryn would lie.

“No?” Madoc asks. “who killed Locke, if not you?” For too long, I can’t think of any good answer.

He barks out a laugh and points a clawed finger at me, absolutely delighted. “It was you! Truly, Taryn, I always thought you were soft and meek, but I see now how wrong I have been.”

“Are you glad I killed him?” He seems prouder of Taryn for murdering Locke than for all her other graces and skills combined—her ability to put people at ease, to choose just the right garment, and to tell just the right kind of lie to make people love her.

He shrugs, still smiling. “Alive or dead, I never cared about him. I only cared for you. If you’re sorrowful that he’s gone, then I am sorry for that. If you wish he were returned to life so you could kill him again, I recognize that feeling. But perhaps you dispensed justice and are only troubled that justice can be cruel.”

“what do you think he did to me to deserve to die?” I ask.

He stokes the fire. Sparks fly up. “I assumed he broke your heart. An eye for an eye, a heart for a heart.”

I remember what it was like to have a knife pressed to Cardan’s throat. To panic at the thought of the power he had over me, to realize there was an easy way to end it. “Is that why you killed Mom?”

He sighs. “I honed my instincts in battle,” he says. “Sometimes those instincts are still there when there is no more war.”

I consider that, wondering what it takes to harden yourself to fight and kill over and over again. wondering if some part of him is cold inside, a kind of cold that can never be warmed, like a shard of ice through the heart. wondering if I have a shard like that, too.

For a moment, we sit quietly together, listening to the crackle and pop of the flames. Then he speaks again. “when I murdered your mother—your mother and your father—I changed you. Their deaths were a crucible, the fire in which all three of you girls were forged. Plunge a heated sword into oil, and any small flaw will turn into a crack. But quenched in blood as you were, none of you broke. You were only hardened. Perhaps what led you to end Locke’s life is more my fault than yours. If it’s hard for you to bear what you did, give me the weight.”

I think of Taryn’s words: No one should have the childhood we had.

And yet I find myself wanting to reassure Madoc, even if I can never forgive him. what would Taryn say? I don’t know, but it would be unfair to comfort him with her voice.

“I should take this to Oriana,” I say, indicating the basket of foraged food. I rise, but he catches my hand.

“Do not think I will forget your loyalty.” He looks up at me meditatively. “You put our family’s interests above your own. when all this is over, you can name your reward, and I will make sure you get it.” I feel a pang that I am no longer the daughter to whom he makes offers like this. I am not the one welcomed to his hearth, not the one he

would care for and cherish.

I wonder what Taryn would ask for herself and the baby in her belly. Safety, I’d wager, the one thing Madoc believes he has already given us, the one thing he can never truly provide. No matter what promises he would make, he is too ruthless to ever keep anyone safe for long.

As for me, safety is not even on offer. He hasn’t caught me yet, but my ability to sustain this masquerade is wearing thin. Although I am not sure how I will manage the trek across the ice, I resolve that I must run tonight.

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