Chapter no 11

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

O‌riana oversees the preparation of dinner for the company, and I stay by her side. I observe the making of nettle soup, stewed with potatoes until the sting is removed, and the butchering of deer, their freshly shot bodies steaming in the cold, their fat used to flavor tender greens. Each of the company has their own bowl and cup, clanking on their belts like ornamentation, and these are presented to the servers and filled with a ration of food and watered wine.

Madoc eats with his generals, laughing and talking. The Court of Teeth keep to their tents, sending a servant out to prepare their meal over a different fire. Grimsen sits apart from the generals, at a table of knights who listen with rapt attention to his stories of exile with the Alderking. It is impossible not to notice that the Folk who surround him wear perhaps more ornament than is typical.

The area where the cookpots and tables are is on the far side of the camp, closer to the mountain. In the distance, I see two guards standing sentry near the cave, not leaving their shift to eat with us. Near them, two reindeer nuzzle the snow, looking for buried roots.

I chew my nettle soup, an idea forming in my mind. By the time Oriana urges me back to our tent, I have come to a decision. I will steal one of the mounts from the soldiers near the cave. It will be easier to do that than take one from the main camp, and if something goes wrong, I will be more difficult to pursue. I still don’t have a map, but I can navigate by the stars well enough to go south, at least. Hopefully, I will find a mortal settlement.

we share a cup of tea and shake off the snow. I warm my stiff fingers on the cup impatiently. I don’t want to make her suspicious, but I need to get moving. I’ve got to pack up food and any other supplies I can manage.

“You must be quite cold,” says Oriana, studying me. with her white hair and ghostly pale skin, she looks to be made of snow herself.

“Mortal weakness.” I smile. “Another reason to miss the isles of Elfhame.”

“we’ll be home soon,” she assures me. She cannot lie, so she must believe that. She must believe that Madoc will win, that he will be made High King.

Finally, she seems ready to retire. I wash my face, then stuff matches in one pocket and a knife in another. After I get into bed, I wait until I figure Oriana is probably asleep, counting off the seconds until a half hour has passed. Then I slip out from the coverlets as quietly as I can and shove my feet into boots. I dump some cheese into a bag, along with a heel of bread and three withered apples. I take the deathsweet I found while foraging and wrap it up in a little paper. Then I pad to the exit of the tent, taking up my cloak along the way. There is a single knight there, amusing himself by carving a flute before the fire. I nod to him as I pass.

“My lady?” he says, rising.

I turn my most withering glare on him. I am no prisoner, after all. I am the daughter of the Grand General. “Yes?”

“where should I tell your father he can find you, should he ask?” The question is phrased in a deferential manner, but no doubt answering it wrong could lead him to less deferential questions.

“Tell him that I am busy using the woods for a chamber pot,” I say, and he flinches, as I hoped he would. He asks me no more questions as I settle the cloak over my shoulders and head out, aware that the more time I take, the more suspicious he will become.

The walk to the cave is not overlong, but I stumble frequently in the dark, the cold wind more cutting with every step. Music and revelry rise from the camp, goblin songs about loss and longing and violence. Ballads of queens and knights and fools.

Close to the cave, I see three guards standing at attention around the wide opening—one more than I had hoped. The cave entrance is long and wide, like a smile, and the darkness beyond flickers occasionally, as

though it’s lit from somewhere deep within. Two pale reindeer doze nearby, curled in the snow like cats. A third scratches its antlers against a nearby tree.

That one, then. I can sneak deeper into the trees and lure him with one of the apples. As I begin to head into the woods, I hear a cry from the cave. The dense, cold air carries the sound to me, making me turn back.

Madoc has someone imprisoned.

I try to convince myself this isn’t my problem, but another sound of distress cuts through all those clever thoughts. Someone is in there, in pain. I’ve got to make sure it isn’t someone I know. My muscles are already stiff with cold, so I go slowly, circling the cave and climbing the rocks directly above it.

My impromptu plan is to drop down into the cave entrance since the guards are mostly looking in the other direction. It has the advantage of hiding me on my way to the drop, but then the actual dropping needs to be done really, really well or the combination of sound and motion is going to alert them immediately.

I grit my teeth and remember the Ghost’s lessons—go slowly, make every step sure, keep to the shadows. Of course, that comes with the memory of the betrayal that followed, but I tell myself that doesn’t make the lessons any less useful. I lower myself slowly from a jagged bit of a boulder. Even in gloves, my fingers feel frozen.

Then, hanging there, I realize I have made a terrible miscalculation. Even fully extended, my body cannot reach the ground. when I drop, there’s no way to avoid making some sound. I am just going to have to be as quiet as I can and move as swiftly as I am able. I take a breath and let myself fall the short distance. At the inevitable crunch of my feet in the snow, one of the guards turns. I slip into the shadows.

“what is it?” asks one of the other two guards.

The first is staring into the cave. I can’t tell if he spotted me or not.

I keep myself as still as possible, holding my breath, hoping he didn’t see me, hoping that he can’t smell me. At least, cold as it is, I’m not sweating.

My knife is near to hand. I remind myself that I fought Grima Mog. If it comes to it, I can fight them, too.

But after a moment, the guard shakes his head and goes back to listening to goblin songs. I wait and then wait some more, just to be

sure. It gives my eyes time to adjust. There is a mineral scent in the air, along with that of burning lamp oil. Shadows dance at the end of a slanted passageway, tempting me on with the promise of light.

I make my way along between stalagmites and stalactites, as though I am stepping through the jagged teeth of a giant. I step into a new chamber and have to blink against the glow of torchlight.

“Jude?” says a soft voice. A voice I know. The Ghost.

Thin, with bruises blooming along his collarbones, he rests on the floor of the cave, his wrists manacled and chained to plates in the ground. Torches blaze in a circle surrounding him. He looks up at me with wide hazel eyes.

Cold as I am, I suddenly feel colder. The last thing he said to me was I served 9rince Dain. Not you. That was right before I got dragged off to the Undersea and held there for weeks, terrified, starved, and alone. And yet, despite that, despite his betrayal, despite destroying the Court of Shadows, he speaks my name with all the wonder of someone who thinks I might be coming to save him.

I consider pretending to be Taryn, but he could hardly believe it was my twin who snuck past those guards. After all, he’s the one who taught me to move like that. “I wanted to see what Madoc was hiding out here,” I say, drawing out my knife. “And if you’re thinking of calling the guards, know that the only reason I have for not stabbing you in the throat is the fear that you might die loudly.”

The Ghost gives me a small, wry smile. “I would, you know. Very loudly. Just to spite you.”

“So here are the wages for your service,” I say with a pointed look around the cave. “I hope betrayal was its own reward.”

“Gloat all you like.” His voice is mild. “I deserve it. I know what I did, Jude. I was a fool.”

“Then why did you do it?” It makes me feel uncomfortably vulnerable even to ask. But I’d trusted the Ghost, and I wanted to know how stupid I’d been. Had he hated me the whole time I’d considered us friends? Had he and Cardan laughed together at my trusting nature?

“Do you remember when I told you that I killed Oak’s mother?”

I nod. Liriope had been poisoned with blusher mushroom to hide that while she was the lover of the High King, she was pregnant with Prince Dain’s child. If Oriana hadn’t cut Oak from Liriope’s womb, the

baby would have died, too. It’s an awful story, and one I wouldn’t be likely to forget, even if it didn’t concern my brother.

“Do you remember how you looked at me when you discovered what I’d done?” he asks.

It had been a day or two after the coronation. I had taken Prince Cardan prisoner. I was still in shock. I was trying to piece together Madoc’s plot. I’d been horrified to learn that the Ghost did such a horrendous thing, but I was horrified a lot then. Still, blusher mushroom is a nightmarish way to die, and my brother was almost murdered, too. “I was surprised.”

He shakes his head. “Even the Roach was appalled. He never knew.” “And that’s why you betrayed us? You thought we were too

judgmental?” I ask, incredulous.

“No. Just listen one moment more.” The Ghost sighs. “I killed Liriope because Prince Dain brought me to Faerie, provided for me, and gave me purpose. Because I was loyal, I did it, but afterward, I was shaken by what I had done. In despair, I went to the boy I thought was Liriope’s only living child.”

“Locke,” I say numbly. I wonder if Locke realized, after Cardan’s coronation, that Oak must be his half brother. I wonder if he felt anything about it, if he ever mentioned it to Taryn.

“Stricken with guilt,” the Ghost goes on, “I offered him my protection. And my name.”

“Your—” I begin, but he cuts me off. “My true name,” says the Ghost.

Among the Folk, true names are closely guarded secrets. A faerie can be controlled by their true name, surer than by any vow. It’s hard to believe the Ghost would give so much of himself away.

“what did he make you do?” I ask, cutting to the chase.

“For many years, nothing,” the Ghost said. “Then little things. Spying on people. Ferreting out their secrets. But until he ordered that I take you to the Tower of Forgetting and let the Undersea abduct you, I believed he meant mischief, never danger.”

Nicasia must have known to ask him for a favor. No wonder Locke and his friends felt safe enough to hunt me the night before his wedding. He knew I would be gone the next day.

And yet, I still understand what the Ghost means. I thought Locke always meant mischief, too, even when it seemed possible I would die

of it.

I shake my head. “But that doesn’t explain how you came to be here.”

The Ghost looks as though he is struggling to keep his voice even, to keep his temper in check. “After the Tower, I tried to put enough distance between myself and Locke that he wouldn’t be able to order me to do anything again. Knights caught me leaving Insmire. That’s when I found out the scope of what Locke had done. He gave my name to your father. It was his dowry for your twin sister’s hand and a seat at the table when Balekin came to power.”

I suck in my breath. “Madoc knows your true name?”

“Bad, right?” He gives a hollow laugh. “Your stumbling in here is the first good fortune I’ve had in a long time. And it is good fortune, even if we both know what needs to happen next.”

I remember how carefully I gave Cardan commands, ones that meant he couldn’t avoid or escape me. Madoc has doubtless done that and more, so that the Ghost believes only one path is open to him.

“I’m going to get you out of here,” I say. “And then—”

The Ghost cuts me off. “I can show you where to cause me the least pain. I can show you how to make it seem like I did it myself.”

“You said that you’d die loudly, just to spite me,” I repeat, pretending he’s not serious.

“I would have, too,” he says with a little smile. “I needed to tell you— I needed to tell someone the truth before I died. Now that’s done. Let me teach you one last lesson.”

“wait,” I say, holding up a hand. I need to stall him. I need to think.

He goes on relentlessly. “It is no life to be always under someone’s control, subject to their will and whim. I know the geas you asked for from Prince Dain. I know you were willing to murder to receive it. No glamour touches you. Remember when it was otherwise? Remember what it felt like to be powerless?”

Of course I do. And I can’t help thinking of the mortal servant in Balekin’s household, Sophie, with her pockets full of stones. Sophie, lost to the Undersea. A shudder goes through me before I can shrug it off.

“Stop being dramatic.” I draw out the bag of food I had with me and sit down in the dirt to cut up wedges of cheese, apples, and bread. “we’re not out of options yet. You look half-starved, and I need you

alive. You could enchant a ragwort stalk and get us out of here—and you owe me that much help, at least.”

He grabs pieces of cheese and apple and shoves them into his mouth. As he eats, I consider the chains holding him. Could I pry apart the links? I note a hole on the plate that seems just the size for a key.

“You’re scheming,” the Ghost says, noticing my gaze. “Grimsen made my restraints to resist all but the most magical of blades.”

“I’m always scheming,” I return. “How much of Madoc’s plan do you know?”

“Very little. Knights bring me food and changes of clothing. I have been allowed to bathe only under a heavy guard. Once, Grimsen came to peer at me, but he was entirely silent, even when I shouted at him.” It is not like the Ghost to shout. Or to scream the way he must have for me to have heard him, to scream out of misery and despair and hopelessness. “Several times, Madoc has come to interrogate me about the Court of Shadows, about the palace, about Cardan and Lady Asha and Dain, even about you. I know he’s searching for weaknesses, for the means to manipulate everyone.”

The Ghost reaches for another slice of the apple and hesitates, looking at the food as though seeing it for the first time. “why did you have any of this with you? why bring a picnic to explore a cave?”

“I was planning on running away,” I admit. “Tonight. Before they discover I am not the sister I am pretending to be.”

He looks up at me in horror. “Then go, Jude. Run. You can’t stay for my sake.”

“I’m not—you’re going to help me get out of here,” I insist, cutting him off when he starts to argue. “I can manage for one more day. Tell me how to open your chains.”

Something in my face seems to convince him of my seriousness. “Grimsen has the key,” he says, not meeting my eyes. “But you’d be better served if you used the knife.”

The worst part is, he’s probably right.

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