Chapter no 13

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

I ‌wake to the press of a hand over my mouth. I slam my elbow into where I think the person holding me must be and am satisfied to hear a sharp intake of breath, as though I connected with a vulnerable part. There’s a hushed laugh from my left. Two people, then. And one of them is not too worried about me, which is worrisome. I reach under my pillow for my knife.

“Jude,” says the Roach, still laughing. “we’ve come to save you.

Screaming would really hurt the plan.”

“You’re lucky I didn’t stab you!” My voice comes out harsher than I intend, anger masking how terrified I was.

“I told him to watch out,” the Roach says. There’s a sharp sound, and light flares from a little box, illuminating the jagged planes of the Roach’s goblin face. He’s grinning. “But would he listen? I’d have ordered him, if not for the little matter of his being the High King.”

“Cardan sent you?” I ask.

“Not exactly,” says the Roach, moving the light so that I can see the person with him, the one I elbowed. The High King of Elfhame, in plain brown wool, a cloak on his back of a fabric so dark it seems to absorb light, leaf blade in the scabbard on his hip. He wears no crown on his brow, no rings on his fingers, nor gold paint limning his cheekbones. He looks every inch a spy from the Court of Shadows, down to the sneaky smile pulling at a corner of his beautiful mouth.

Looking at him, I feel a little light-headed from some combination of shock and disbelief. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“I said that, too,” the Roach goes on. “Really, I miss the days when you were in charge. High Kings shouldn’t be gallivanting around like common ruffians.”

Cardan laughs. “what about uncommon ruffians?”

I swing my legs over the edge of the bed, and his laugh gutters out. The Roach turns his gaze to the ceiling. I am abruptly aware that I am in a nightgown Oriana lent me, one that is entirely too diaphanous.

My cheeks go hot enough with anger that I barely feel the cold. “How did you find me?” Padding across the tent, I feel my way to where I put my dress and fumble it on, pulling it on straight over my nightclothes. I tuck my knife into a sheath.

The Roach cuts a glance at Cardan. “Your sister Vivienne. She came to the High King with a message from your stepmother. She worried it was a trap. I was worried it was a trap, too. A trap for him. Maybe even for myself.”

which is why they took pains to catch me at my most vulnerable. But why come at all? And given all the disparaging things my older sister said about Cardan, why would she trust him with any of this? “Vivi went to you?”

“we spoke after Madoc carried you off from the palace,” Cardan begins. “And whom did I find in her little dwelling but Taryn? we all had quite a lot to say to one another.”

I try to imagine the High King in the mortal world, standing in front of our apartment complex, knocking on our door. what ridiculous thing had he worn? Had he sat down on the lumpy couch and drank coffee as though he didn’t despise everything around him?

Did he pardon Taryn when he wouldn’t pardon me?

I think of Madoc’s believing that Cardan desires to be loved. It seemed like nonsense then and seems like even more nonsense now. He charms everyone, even my own sisters. He is a gravitational force, pulling everything toward him.

But I am not so easily taken in now. If he’s here, it’s to his own purpose. Maybe allowing his queen to fall into the hands of his enemies is dangerous to him. which means I have power. I just have to discover it and then find a way to wield it against him.

“I can’t go with you yet,” I say, drawing on thick hose and jamming my foot into a heavy boot. “There’s something I have to do. And something I need you to give me.”

“Perhaps you could just allow yourself to be rescued,” Cardan says. “For once.” Even in his plain clothes, his head bare of any crown, he cannot pretend away how much he has grown into his royal role. when a king tries to give you a gift, you’re not allowed to refuse it.

“Perhaps you could just give me what I want,” I say.

“what?” the Roach asks. “Let’s put our cards on the table, Jude. Your sisters and their friend are waiting with the horses. we need to be swift.”

My sisters? Both of them? And a friend—Heather? “You let them come?”

“They insisted, and since they were the ones who knew where you were, we had no choice.” The Roach is obviously frustrated with the whole situation. It’s risky to work with people who have no training. Risky to have the High King acting as your foot soldier. Risky to have the person you’re trying to extract—who might be a traitor—start backseat-driving your plan.

But that’s his problem, not mine. I walk over and take his light from him, using it to find my wineskin. “This is dosed with a sleeping draught. I was going to take this to some guards, steal a key, and free a prisoner. we were supposed to escape together.”

“Prisoner?” the Roach echoes warily.

“I saw the maps in Madoc’s war room,” I tell them. “I know the formation in which he means to sail against Elfhame, and I know the number of his ships. I know the soldiers in this encampment and which Courts are on his side. I know what Grimsen is making in his forge. If Cardan will promise me safe passage to Elfhame and to lift my exile once we’re there, I will give all that to you. Plus, you will have the prisoner delivered into your hands before he can be used against you.”

“If you’re telling the truth,” the Roach says. “And not leading us into a net of Madoc’s making.”

“I’m on my own side,” I tell him. “You of all people should understand that.”

The Roach gives Cardan a look. The High King is staring at me strangely, as though he wishes to say something and is holding himself back from it.

Finally, he clears his throat. “Since you’re mortal, Jude, I cannot hold you to your promises. But you can hold me to mine: I guarantee you

safe passage. Come back to Elfhame with me, and I will give you the means to end your exile.”

“The means to end it?” I ask. If he thinks I don’t know better than to agree to that, he’s forgotten everything worth knowing about me.

“Come back to Elfhame, tell me what you would tell me, and your exile will end,” he says. “I promise.”

Triumph sweeps through me, followed by wariness. He tricked me once. Standing in front of him, recalling that I believed his offer of marriage was made in earnest, makes me feel small and scrubby and very, very mortal. I cannot allow myself to be tricked again.

I nod. “Madoc is keeping the Ghost prisoner. Grimsen has the key we need—”

The Roach interrupts me. “You want to free him? Let’s gut him like a haddock. Quicker and far more satisfying.”

“Madoc has his true name. He got it from Locke,” I tell them. “whatever punishment the Ghost deserves, you can dole it out once he’s back in the Court of Shadows. But it’s not death.”

“Locke?” Cardan echoes, then sighs. “Yes, all right. what do we have to do?”

“I was planning to sneak into Grimsen’s forge and steal the key to the Ghost’s chains,” I say.

“I’ll help you,” says the Roach, then turns to Cardan. “But you, sire, will absolutely not. wait for us with Vivienne and the others.”

“I am coming,” Cardan begins. “You cannot order me otherwise.” The Roach shakes his head. “I can learn from Jude’s example, though.

I can ask for a promise. If we’re spotted, if we’re set upon, promise to go back to Elfhame immediately. You must do everything in your power to get to safety, no matter what.”

Cardan glances toward me, as though for help. when I am silent, he frowns, annoyed with both of us. “Although I am wearing the cloak Mother Marrow made me, the one that will turn any blade, I still promise to run, tail between my legs. And since I have a tail, that should be amusing for everyone. Are you satisfied?”

The Roach grunts his approval, and we sneak from the tent. A wineskin full of poison sloshes softly at my hip as we slide through the shadows. Though it is late, a few soldiers move between tents, some gathered to drink or play dice and riddle games. A few sing along to a tune strummed on a lute by a goblin in leathers.

The Roach moves with perfect ease, slipping from shadow to shadow. Cardan moves behind him, more silently than I might have supposed. It gives me no pleasure to admit that he’s grown better at slyfooting than I am. I could pretend that it’s because the Folk have a natural ability, but I suspect that he also has practiced more than I have. I spread my learning too thin, although, to be fair, I’d like to know how much time he spent studying all the things he ought to know to be the ruler of Klfhame. No, those studies fell to me.

with those resentful thoughts circling in my head, we approach the forge. It is quiet, its embers cold. No smoke comes from its metal chimneys.

“So you’ve seen this key?” the Roach asks, going to a window and wiping away the grime to try to peer through the pane.

“It’s crystal and hanging on the wall,” I say in return, seeing nothing through the cloudy glass. It’s too dark inside for my eyes. “And he’s begun a new sword for Madoc.”

“I wouldn’t mind ruining that before it’s put to my throat,” says Cardan.

“Look for the big one,” I say. “That’ll be it.”

The Roach gives me a frown. I can’t help not having a better description; the last time I saw it, it was barely more than a bar of metal.

“Really big,” I say. Cardan snorts.

“And we ought to be careful,” I say, thinking of the jeweled spider, of Grimsen’s earrings that can give beauty or steal it. “There are bound to be traps.”

“we’ll go in and out fast,” says the Roach. “But I would feel a lot better if the both of you stayed out and let me be the one to go in.”

when neither of us reply, the goblin squats down to pick the lock on the door. After applying a bit of oil to the joints, they swing open silently.

I follow him inside. The moonlight reflects off the snow in such a way that even my poor, mortal eyes can see around the workshop. A jumble of items—some jeweled, some sharp, all piled up on one another. A collection of swords rests on a hat rack, one with a handle that is coiled like a snake. But there is no mistaking Madoc’s blade. It sits on a table, not yet sharpened or polished, its tang raw. Pale bone-

like fragments of root rest beside it, waiting to be carved and fitted into a handle.

I lift the crystal key from the wall gingerly. Cardan stands by me, looking over the array of objects. The Roach crosses the floor toward the sword.

He’s halfway there when a sound like the chime of a clock rings out. High up the wall, two inset doors open, revealing a round hole. All I have time to do before a spray of darts shoots out is point and make a sound of warning.

Cardan steps in front of me, pulling his cloak up. The metal needles glance off the fabric, falling to the floor. For a moment, we stare at each other, wide-eyed. He looks as surprised as I am that he protected me.

Then, from the hole where the darts shot, comes a metal bird. Its beak opens and closes. “Thieves!” it cries. “Thieves! Thieves!”

Outside, I hear shouts.

Then I spot the Roach across the room. His skin has turned pale. He’s about to say something, his face anguished, when he slides to one knee. The darts must have struck him. I rush over. “what was he hit with?” Cardan calls.

“Deathsweet,” I say. Probably plucked from the same patch I found in the woods. “The Bomb can help him. She can make an antidote.”

I hope she can, at least. I hope there’s time.

with surprising ease, Cardan lifts the Roach in his arms. “Tell me this wasn’t your plan,” he pleads. “Tell me.”

“No,” I say. “Of course not. I swear it.”

“Come then,” he says. “My pocket is full of ragwort. we can fly.” I shake my head.

Jude,” he warns.

we don’t have time to argue. “Vivi and Taryn are still waiting for me. They won’t know what’s happened. If I don’t go to them, they’ll be caught.”

I can tell he’s not sure if he should believe me, but all he does is shift the Roach so that he can untie his cloak with one hand. “Take this, and do not stop,” he orders, his expression fierce. Then he heads into the night, bearing the Roach in his arms.

I set out for the woods, neither running nor hiding, exactly, but moving swiftly, tying his cloak over my shoulders as I go. I glance back

once and see the soldiers swarming around the forge—a few entering Madoc’s tent.

I said I was going straight to Vivi, but I lied. I head for the cave. There’s still time, I tell myself. The incident at the forge is an excellent distraction. If they’re looking for intruders there, they won’t be looking for me here with the Ghost.

My optimism seems borne out as I draw close. The guards aren’t at their posts. Letting out a sigh of relief, I rush inside.

But the Ghost is no longer in chains. He’s not there at all. In his place is Madoc, outfitted in his full suit of armor.

“I’m afraid you’re too late,” he says. “Much too late.” Then he draws his sword.

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