Chapter no 18

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

C‌ardan is wearing a high jeweled collar of jet on a stiff black doublet. Over the tops of his pointed ears are knifelike caps of gold, matching the gold along his cheekbones. His expression is remote.

“walk with me,” he says, leaving little room for refusal.

“Of course.” My heart speeds, despite myself. I hate that he saw me when I was at my most vulnerable, that he let me bleed all over his spider-silk sheets.

Vivi catches my hand. “You’re not well enough.”

Cardan raises his black brows. “The Living Council is eager to speak with her.”

“No doubt,” I say, then look at my sisters, Heather and Oak behind them. “And Vivi should be happy, because the only danger anyone has ever been in at a Council meeting is of being bored to death.”

I let go of my sister. The guards fall in behind us. Cardan gives me his arm, causing me to walk at his side, instead of behind him the way I would have as his seneschal. we make our way through the halls, and when we pass courtiers, they bow. It’s extremely unnerving.

“Is the Roach okay?” I ask, low enough not to be overheard.

“The Bomb has not yet discovered how to wake him,” Cardan says. “But there is hope that she yet will.”

At least he’s not dead, I remind myself. But if he sleeps for a hundred years, I will be in my grave before he opens his eyes again.

“Your father sent a message,” Cardan says, glancing at me sideways. “It was very unfriendly. He seems to blame me for the death of his

daughter.” “Ah,” I say.

“And he has sent soldiers to the low Courts with promises of a new regime. He urges them to not hesitate, but to come to Elfhame and hear his challenge to the crown.” Cardan says all this neutrally. “The Living Council waits to hear all you know about the sword and his maps. They found my descriptions of the camp to be sadly inadequate.”

“They can wait a little longer,” I say, forcing out the words. “I need to talk to you.”

He looks surprised and a little uncertain.

“It won’t take long.” The last thing I want is to have this conversation, but the longer I put it off, the larger it will loom in my mind. He ended my exile—and while I extracted a promise from him to do that, he had no reason to declare me queen. “whatever your scheme is, whatever you are planning to hold over me, you might as well tell me now, before we’re in front of the whole Council. Make your threats. Do your worst.”

“Yes,” he says, turning down a corridor in the palace that led outside. “we do need to talk.”

It is not long before we come to the royal rose garden. The guards stop at the gate, letting us go on alone. As we make our way down a path of shimmering quartz steps, everything is hushed. The wind carries floral scents through the air, a wild perfume that doesn’t exist outside of Faerie and reminds me at once of home and of menace.

“I assume you weren’t actually trying to shoot me,” Cardan says. “Since the note was in your handwriting.”

“Madoc sent the Ghost—” I say, then stop and try again. “I thought that there was going to be an attempt on your life.”

Cardan gazes at a rosebush with petals so black and glossy they look like patent leather. “It was terrifying,” he says, “watching you fall. I mean, you’re generally terrifying, but I am unused to fearing for you. And then I was furious. I am not sure I have ever been that angry before.”

“Mortals are fragile,” I say.

“Not you,” he says in a way that sounds a little like a lament. “You never break.”

which is ridiculous, as hurt as I am. I feel like a constellation of wounds, held together with string and stubbornness. Still, I like

hearing it. I like everything he’s saying all too well.

That boy is your weaPness.

“when I came here, pretending to be Taryn, you said you’d sent me messages,” I say. “You seemed surprised I hadn’t gotten any. what was in them?”

Cardan turns to me, hands clasped behind his back. “Pleading, mostly. Beseeching you to come back. Several indiscreet promises.” He’s wearing that mocking smile, the one he says comes from nervousness.

I close my eyes against frustration great enough to make me scream. “Stop playing games,” I say. “You sent me into exile.”

“Yes,” he says. “That. I can’t stop thinking about what you said to me, before Madoc took you. About it being a trick. You meant marrying you, making you queen, sending you to the mortal world, all of it, didn’t you?”

I fold my arms across my chest protectively. “0f course it was a tricP. wasn’t that what you said in return?”

“But that’s what you do,” Cardan says. “You trick people. Nicasia, Madoc, Balekin, Orlagh. Me. I thought you’d admire me a little for it, that I could trick you. I thought you’d be angry, of course, but not quite like this.”

I stare at him, openmouthed. “what?”

“Let me remind you that I didn’t know you’d murdered my brother, the ambassador to the Undersea, until that very morning,” he says. “My plans were made in haste. And perhaps I was a little annoyed. I thought it would pacify Queen Orlagh, at least until all promises were finalized in the treaty. By the time you guessed the answer, the negotiations would be over. Think of it: I exile Jude Duarte to the mortal world. Until and unless she is pardoned by the crown.” He pauses. “9ardoned by the crown. Meaning by the King of Faerie. Or its queen. You could have returned anytime you wanted.”



It wasn’t an accident, his choice of words. It wasn’t infelicitous. It was deliberate. A riddle made just for me.

Maybe I should feel foolish, but instead, I feel furiously angry. I turn away from him and walk, swiftly and completely directionless through the garden. He runs after me, grabbing my arm.

I haul around and slap him. It’s a stinging blow, smearing the gold on his cheekbone and causing his skin to redden. we stare at each other for long moments, breathing hard. His eyes are bright with something entirely different from anger.

I am in over my head. I am drowning.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you.” He grabs my hand, possibly to keep me from hitting him again. Our fingers lace together. “No, it’s not that, not exactly. I didn’t think I could hurt you. And I never thought you would be afraid of me.”

“And did you like it?” I ask.

He looks away from me then, and I have my answer. Maybe he doesn’t want to admit to that impulse, but he has it.

“well, I was hurt, and yes, you scare me.” Even as I am speaking, I wish I could snatch back the words. Perhaps it is exhaustion or having been so close to death, but the truth pours out of me in a devastating rush. “You’ve always scared me. You gave me every reason to fear your capriciousness and your cruelty. I was afraid of you even when you were tied to that chair in the Court of Shadows. I was afraid of you when I had a knife to your throat. And I am scared of you now.”

Cardan looks more surprised than he did when I slapped him.

He was always a symbol of everything about Elfhame that I couldn’t have, everything that would never want me. And telling him this feels a little like throwing off a heavy weight, except that weight is supposed to be my armor, and without it, I am afraid I am going to be entirely exposed. But I keep talking anyway, as though I no longer have control of my tongue. “You despised me. when you said you wanted me, it felt like the world had turned upside down.

“But sending me into exile, that made sense.” I meet his gaze. “That was an entirely right-side-up Cardan move. And I hated myself for not seeing it coming. And I hate myself for not seeing what you’re going to do to me next.”

He closes his eyes. when he opens them, he releases my hand and turns so I can’t see his face. “I can see why you thought what you did. I suppose I am not an easy person to trust. And maybe I ought not to be trusted, but let me say this: I trust you.”

He takes a deep breath. “You may recall that I did not want to be the High King. And that you did not consult me before plopping this crown on my head. You may further recollect that Balekin didn’t want me to

keep the title and that the Living Council never took a real shine to me.”

“I suppose,” I say, though none of those things seemed particularly unusual. Balekin wanted the crown for himself, and the Living Council wanted Cardan to show up for meetings, which he seldom did.

“There was a prophecy given when I was born. Usually Baphen is uselessly vague, but in this case, he made it clear that should I rule, I would make a very poor king.” He pauses. “The destruction of the crown, the ruination of the throne—a lot of dramatic language.”

I recall Oriana said something about Cardan’s being ill-fated, and so did Madoc, but this is more than bad luck. It makes me think of the coming battle. It makes me think of my dream of the star charts and the spilled inkpot of blood.

Cardan turns back to me, gazing down at me as he did in my imaginings. “when you forced me into working for the Court of Shadows, I never thought of the things I could do—frightening people, charming people—as talents, no less ones that might be valuable. But you did. You showed me how to use them to be useful. I never minded being a minor villain, but it’s possible I might have grown into something else, a High King as monstrous as Dain. And if I did—if I fulfilled that prophecy—I ought to be stopped. And I believe that you would stop me.”

“Stop you?” I echo. “Sure. If you’re a huge jerk and a threat to Elfhame, I’ll pop your head right off.”

“Good.” His expression is wistful. “That’s one reason I didn’t want to believe you’d joined up with Madoc. The other is that I want you here by my side, as my queen.”

It’s a strange speech, and there’s little of love in it, but it doesn’t seem like a trick, either. And if it stings a little that he admires me primarily for my ruthlessness, well, I suppose there should be some comfort that he admires me at all. He wants me with him, and maybe he wants me in other ways, too. Desiring more than that from him is just greed.

He gives me a half smile. “But now that you’re High Queen and back in charge, I won’t be doing anything of consequence anyway. If I destroy the crown and ruin the throne, it will only be through neglect.” That startles a laugh out of me. “So that’s your excuse for not doing any of the work? You must be draped in decadence at all times because

if you aren’t kept busy, you might fulfill some half-baked prophecy?” “Exactly.” He touches my arm, his smile fading. “would you like me

to inform the Council that you will see them another time? It will be a novelty to have me make your excuses.”

“No. I’m ready.” My head swims with everything we’ve talked about. My palm is smeared with gold. when I look at him, I see the remaining powder has been smudged over his cheekbone by the strike of my hand. I can’t stop staring at it, can’t stop thinking about the way he looked at me when he caught my fingers. That’s the only excuse I have for not noticing that he’s led me back to his rooms, which are, I suppose, also mine since we’re married.

“They’re here?” I say.

“I believe it was meant to be an ambush,” he informs me with a twist of his mouth. “As you know, they are very nosy and hate the idea of being kept out of anything important, including royal convalescing.”

what I am imagining is how terrible it would have been to be awakened by the entire Living Council when I was still rumpled and filthy and naked. I draw on that anger and hope it makes me seem imperious.

Inside, Fala the Grand Fool dozes on the floor beside the fire. The rest of the Council—Randalin with his ram horns, Baphen stroking his blue beard, sinister Mikkel from the Unseelie Court, and insectile Nihuar from the Seelie—are seated around the room, no doubt annoyed by the wait.

“Queen Seneschal,” Fala says, leaping to his feet and making an extravagant bow.

Randalin glowers. The others begin to rise. I feel tremendously awkward.

“No, please,” I say. “Remain as you are.”

The councilors and I have had a contentious relationship. As Cardan’s seneschal, I frequently denied them audiences with the High King. I think they suspected my chief qualification for the position was my ability to lie for him.

I doubt they believe I have any qualifications for my new position.

But before they can say so, I launch into a description of Madoc’s camp. Soon, I am re-creating the naval maps I saw and making lists of every faction fighting on his side. I explain what I saw in Grimsen’s forge; Cardan chimes in with a few items he recalls.

The numbers are on Elfhame’s side. And whether or not I can draw on the power of the land, I know that Cardan can. Of course, there’s still the matter of the sword.

“A duel?” Mikkel says. “Perhaps he mistakes the High King for someone more bloodthirsty. You, perhaps?”

From him, that’s not exactly an insult.

“well, Jude did get herself tangled up with Grima Mog.” Randalin has never much liked me, and I don’t think recent events have improved his feelings at all. “Leave it to you to spend your exile recruiting infamous butchers.”

“So did you murder Balekin?” Nihuar asks me, clearly able to put off her curiosity no longer.

“Yes,” I say. “After he poisoned the High King.” “Poisoned?” she echoes in astonishment, looking at Cardan.

He shrugs, lounging in a chair, looking bored as ever. “You can hardly expect me to mention every little thing.”

Randalin rises to the bait, looking puffed up with annoyance. “Your Majesty, we were led to believe that her exile was justified. And that if you wished to marry, you would consult—”

“Perhaps at least one of you could have told us—” Baphen says, talking over Randalin.

This was what they really wanted to discuss, I suppose. whether there was any way they could prevent what’s already occurred and invalidate my elevation to High Queen.

Cardan puts up a hand. “No, no, enough. It’s all too tedious to explain. I declare this meeting at an end.” His fingers make a flicking gesture toward the door. “Leave us. I tire of the lot of you.”

I have a long way to go before I can manage that level of shameless arrogance.

It works, however. They grumble but rise and go out. Fala blows me a kiss as he departs.

For a moment, we are alone.

Then there is a sharp rap on the secret door to the High King’s chamber. Before either of us can get up, the Bomb pushes her way through, striding into the room with a tray of tea things. Her white hair has been pulled up into a topknot, and if she is tired or grieving, none of it shows on her face.

“Long live Jude,” she says with a wink, setting down the tray on a table with a clatter of the pots and saucers and whatnot. “No thanks to me.”

I grin. “Good thing you’re a lousy shot.”

She holds up a packet of herbs. “A poultice. To draw any fever from the blood and help the patient heal faster. Unfortunately, it won’t draw the sting from your tongue.” She takes some bandages from her coat and turns to Cardan. “You should go.”

“This is my room,” he points out, affronted. “And that’s my wife.”

“So you keep telling everyone,” the Bomb says. “But I am going to take out her stitches, and I don’t think you want to watch that.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe he’d like to hear me scream.”

“I would,” Cardan says, standing. “And perhaps one day I will.” On the way out, his hand goes to my hair. A light touch, barely there, and then gone.

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