Chapter no 16

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

T‌he sky warms as I fly toward Elfhame. Holding on to the mane of the ragwort horse, I drink in great gulps of salt-spray air and watch the waves peak and roll below me. Although the land kept me from death, I am not entirely whole. when I shift my weight, my side hurts. I feel the stitches holding me together as though I am a rag doll with stuffing trying to leak out.

And the closer I get, the more panicked I become.

Wouldn’t it be better if he tooP an arrow through the heart in his own hall?

It’s the Ghost’s habit to plan an assassination like a trap-door spider, finding a place to strike from and then waiting for his victim to arrive. He took me to the rafters of the Court of Elfhame for my first murder and showed me how to do it. Despite the success of that assassination, nothing about the inside of the cavernous chamber was changed—I know because shortly after is when I came into power, and I’m the one who changed nothing.

My first impulse is to present myself at the gates and demand to be taken to the High King. Cardan promised to lift my exile, and whatever he intends, at least I could warn him about the Ghost. But I worry that some overeager knight might hasten to decide I should forfeit my life first and he should carry any messages I have second, if at all.

My second thought is to creep into the palace through Cardan’s mother’s old chamber and the secret passageway to the High King’s rooms. But if Cardan isn’t there, I will be stuck, unable to sneak past the

guards who watch over his door. And sneaking back will waste a lot of time. Time I am already short on.

with the Court of Shadows bombed out and no sense of where they rebuilt, I can’t get in that way, either.

which leaves me a single path—walking right into the brugh. A mortal in servant’s livery might normally pass unnoticed, but I am too well known for that trick to work unless I am well disguised. But I have little access to clothes. My rooms, deep in the palace, are impossible to get to. Taryn’s home, formerly Locke’s and with Locke’s servants still around, is too risky. Madoc’s stronghold, though—abandoned, with clothing that used to belong to Taryn and Vivi and me still hanging in forgotten closets …

That might work.

I fly low to the tree line, glad to be arriving in the late morning, when most Folk are still abed. I land by the stables and step off the pony. It immediately collapses back into ragwort stalks, the magic already pushed to its full measure. Sore and slow, I head for the house. In my head, my fears and hopes collide in a loop of words playing over and over again:

9lease let the Roach be oPay.

Let Cardan not be shot. Let the Ghost be clumsy. Let me get inside easily. Let me stop him.

I do not pause to ask myself why I am in such a panic to save someone for whom I swore I rooted out every feeling. I will not think about that.

Inside the estate, much of the furniture is gone. Of what remains, the upholstery is ripped open, as though sprites or squirrels were nesting in it. My steps echo as I go up the familiar stairs, made strange by the emptiness of the rooms. I don’t bother going to my own old chamber. Instead, I go to Vivi’s, where I find that her closets are still full. I suspected she would have left many things behind when she went to live in the human world, and my guess is rewarded.

I find some stretchy hose in dark gray, pants, and a close-fitting jacket. Good enough. As I am changing, a wave of dizziness hits me, and I have to hang on to the doorframe until it passes and I get my balance again. Pushing up my shirt, I do what I’ve been avoiding thus far—I look at the wound. Dried-blood flecks stick all along the red pucker of where Madoc stabbed me, neat stitching holding the skin together. It’s nice,

careful work, and I am grateful to Taryn for it. But just a glance at it gives me a cold, unsteady feeling. Especially the reddest spots, where there are already signs of pulling.

I leave my sliced and blood-soaked dress in a corner, along with my boots. with trembling fingers, I scrape back my hair into a tight bun, which I cover with a black scarf wound twice around my head. Once I am climbing, I don’t want anything to draw the eye.

In the main part of the house, I find an out-of-tune lute hanging in Oriana’s parlor, along with pots of makeup. I darken around my eyes dramatically, drawing them out into a wing, with eyebrows to match. Then I take a mask with gargoyle features that I fit over my own.

In the armory, I find a small bow that breaks down into something I can hide. Regretfully, I leave Nightfell, hidden as best I can among the other swords. I take a piece of paper from Madoc’s old desk and use his quill pen to write a note of warning:

Expect am assassimatiom attewpt, wost lihely im the great hall. heep the High himg im seclusiom.

If I give that to someone to pass to Baphen or one of Cardan’s personal guard, then perhaps I have a better chance of finding the Ghost before he strikes.

with lute in hand, I head for the palace on foot. It’s not far, but by the time I arrive, a cold sweat has started on my brow. It’s difficult to guess how hard I can push myself. On one hand, the land healed me, which has made me feel slightly invulnerable. On the other, I nearly died and am still very hurt—and whatever Grima Mog gave me to drink is wearing off.

I find a small knot of musicians and stick close to them through the gates.

“That’s a beautiful instrument,” says one of the players, a boy with hair the green of new leaves. He looks at me strangely, as though perhaps we know each other.

“I’ll give it to you,” I say impulsively. “If you will do something for me.”

“what is it?” He frowns.

I take his hand and press the note I wrote into it. “will you take this to one of the members of the Living Council, preferably Baphen? I promise you won’t get in any trouble.”

He wavers, uncertain.

It is at that unfortunate moment that one of the knights stops me. “You. Mortal girl in the mask,” he says. “You smell like blood.”

I turn. Frustrated and desperate as I am, I blurt out the first thing that comes to me. “well, I am a mortal. And a girl, sir. we bleed every month, just like moon swells.”

He waves me on, distaste on his face. The musician looks a little horrified, too.

“Here,” I say to him. “Don’t forget the note.” Not waiting for a response, I shove the lute into his arms. Then I head into the throng. It doesn’t take long before I am swallowed up thoroughly enough by the crowd that I can ditch my mask. I make for a shadowed corner and begin my ascent into the rafters.

The climb is horrible. I keep to the shadows, moving slowly, all the while trying to see where the Ghost might be hiding, all the while dreading that Cardan might enter the hall and make himself a target. Again and again, I have to stop and get my bearings. Bouts of light- headedness come and go. Halfway up, I am sure one of my stitches rips. I touch my hand to my side, and it comes away red. Hiding in a thicket of roots, I unwind the scarf from my head and wrap it around my waist, tying it as tightly as I can bear.

I finally make it to a perch high in the curve of the ceiling where several roots converge.

There I string my bow, arrange arrows, and look across the hollow hill. He may already be here, hidden somewhere close. As the Ghost told me when he taught me how to lie in wait, the tedium is the hardest part. Keeping yourself alert, not getting so bored that you lose focus and stop paying attention to every shift in the shadows. Or, in my case, getting distracted by pain.

I need to spot the Ghost, and once I do, I need to shoot him. I cannot hesitate. The Ghost himself would tell me I’d already missed my one chance to kill him; I better not miss again.

I think of Madoc, who raised me in a house of murder. Madoc, who became so used to war that he killed his wife and would have killed me, too.

9lunge a heated sword into oil and any small flaw will turn into a cracP. But quenched in blood as you were, none of you broPe. You were only hardened.

If I continue the way I am, will I become like Madoc? Or will I break?

Below me, a few courtiers dance in circles that come together, cross, then part again. Having been swept up in them, they can feel utterly chaotic, but from up here, they are triumphs of geometry. I look down at the banquet tables, piled with platters of fruit, flower-studded cheeses, and decanters of clover wine. My stomach growls as late morning turns to early afternoon and more Folk come to the Court.

Baphen, the Royal Astrologer, arrives with Lady Asha on his arm. I watch them make their way around the dais, not far from the empty throne. Seven circle dances later, Nicasia comes into the hall with a few companions from the Undersea. Then Cardan enters with his guard around him and the Blood Crown gleaming atop his ink-black curls.

when I look at him, I feel a dizzy dissonance.

He does not seem like someone who has been carrying poisoned spies through the snow, someone who has braved an enemy camp. Someone who pushed his magical cloak into my hands. He seems like the person who shoved me into the water and laughed when it closed over my head. who tricked me.

That boy is your weaPness.

I watch toasts I can’t hear and see plates heaped with roasted doves on spits, leaf-wrapped sweetmeats, and stuffed plums. I feel strange, light-headed, and when I look, I see that the black scarf is nearly soaked through with blood. I shift my balance.

And I wait. And wait. And try not to bleed on anyone. My vision gets a little blurry, and I force myself to focus.

Below, I see Randalin with something in his hand, something he’s waving at Cardan. The note I wrote. The boy must have delivered it after all. I tighten my hand on my crossbow. Finally, they’ll get him out of here and out of danger.

Cardan doesn’t look at the paper, though. He makes a dismissive gesture, as though perhaps he’s already read it. But if he got my note, what is he doing here?

Unless, fool that he is, he’s decided to be bait.

Just then I see a flicker of movement near some roots. I think for a second that I am just seeing shadows move. But then I spot the Bomb at the same moment her gaze goes to me and her eyes narrow. She lifts her own bow, arrow already notched.

I realize what’s happening a moment too late.

A note told the Court of an assassination attempt, and the Bomb went looking for an assassin. She found someone hiding in the shadows with a weapon. Someone who had every reason to want to kill the king: me.

Wouldn’t it be better if he tooP an arrow through the heart in his own hall?

Madoc set me up. He never sent the Ghost here. He only made me think he did, so I would come and chase after a phantom in the rafters. So I would incriminate myself. Madoc didn’t have to deliver the killing blow. He made sure I would march straight to my doom.

The Bomb shoots, and I dodge. Her bolt goes past me, but my foot slips sideways in my own blood, and then I plunge backward. Off the rafter and into the open air.

For a moment, it feels like flying.

I crash onto a banquet table, knocking pomegranates to the floor. They roll in every direction, into puddles of spilled mead and shattered crystal. I am sure I ripped a lot of stitches. Everything hurts. I can’t seem to get my breath.

I open my eyes to see people crowded around me. Councilors. Guards. I have no memory of closing my eyes, no idea how long I was unconscious.

“Jude Duarte,” someone says. “Broken her exile to murder the High King.”

“Your Majesty,” says Randalin. “Give the order.”

Cardan sweeps across the floor toward me, looking like a ridiculously magnificent fiend. The guards part to let him closer, but if I make a move, I have no doubt they’ll stab me through.

“I lost your cloak,” I croak up at him, my voice coming out all breath.

He peers down at me. “You’re a liar,” he says, eyes glittering with fury. “A dirty, mortal liar.”

I close my eyes again against the harshness of his words. But he has no reason to believe I haven’t come here to kill him.

If he sends me to the Tower of Forgetting, I wonder if he’ll visit. “Clap her in chains,” says Randalin.

Never have I so wished there was a way for me to show I was telling the truth. But there isn’t. No oath of mine carries any weight.

I feel a guard’s hand close on my arm. Then Cardan’s voice comes. “Do not touch her.”

A terrible silence follows. I wait for him to pronounce judgment on me. whatever he commands will be done. His power is absolute. I don’t even have the strength to fight back.

“whatever can you mean?” Randalin says. “She’s—”

“She is my wife,” Cardan says, his voice carrying over the crowd. “The rightful High Queen of Elfhame. And most definitely not in exile.”

The shocked roar of the crowd rolls around me, but none of them are more shocked than I am. I try to open my eyes, try to sit up, but darkness crowds in at the edges of my vision and drags me under.

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