Chapter no 19

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

T‌aking out stitches is slow and painful. My sister does beautiful needlework, and it seems that she embroidered my stomach and side, leaving the Bomb with an endless stretch of tiny stitches that need to be individually snipped, the threads teased out of the skin, and then salve applied.

“Ow!” I say for what seems like the millionth time. “Do these really need to come out?”

The Bomb gives a long-suffering sigh. “They should have been removed days ago.”

I bite my tongue against another howl of pain. when I can speak again, I try to distract myself by asking, “Cardan said you’re hopeful about the Roach.”

Bent over me, she smells of cordite and bitter herbs. Her expression is wry. “I’m always hopeful when it comes to him.”

There is a soft tap on the door. The Bomb looks at me expectantly. “Come in?” I call, lowering my dress to cover the mess of my


A messenger with small moth wings and a nervous expression enters the room, granting me a temporary reprieve from being poked. She sinks into a bow, looking a bit like she’s going to faint. Maybe it’s the small pile of blood-covered thread.

I consider explaining, but that’s supposed to be beneath the dignity of a queen, and it would only embarrass us both. Instead, I give her what I hope is an encouraging smile. “Yes?”

“Your Highness,” she says. “Lady Asha wishes to see you. She has sent me to bring you directly to the chamber where she languishes.”

The Bomb snorts. “Languishes,” she mouths.

“You may tell her that I will see her as soon as I am able,” I say with as much grandeur as I can muster.

Although it’s clearly not the answer her mistress wanted me to give, the messenger can do little to challenge it. She hesitates a moment, then seems to realize it herself. Abashed, she departs with another bow.

“You’re the High Queen of Elfhame. Act like it,” the Bomb says, fixing me with a serious expression. “You shouldn’t let anyone command you. Not even me.”

“I told her no!” I protest.

She begins to pick out another stitch, not particularly gently. “Lady Asha doesn’t get to be put next on your schedule just for asking. And she shouldn’t make the queen come to her. Especially when you were hurt. She’s lying in bed recuperating from the trauma of watching while you fell from the ceiling.”

“Ouch,” I say, not sure if I am reacting to the tug against my flesh, her completely justified scolding, or her scathing assessment of Lady Asha.



Once the Bomb is finished with me, I ignore her excellent counsel and head toward Lady Asha’s chamber. It’s not that I disagree with any of her advice. But I would like to say something to Cardan’s mother, and now seems like an excellent time to do so.

As I head through the hall, I am stopped by Val Moren, who places his walking stick in my path. The eyes of the last High King’s mortal seneschal are lit with malice.

“How does it feel to rise to such dizzying heights?” he asks. “Afraid you’ll take another tumble?”

I scowl at him. “I bet you’d like to know how it feels.”

“Unfriendly, my queen,” he says with a grunt. “Ought not you be kind to the least of your subjects?”

“You want kindness?” I used to be afraid of him, of his dire warnings and wild eyes, but I am not afraid of him now. “All those years, you

could have helped me and my sister. You could have taught us how to survive here as mortals. But you left us to figure it out on our own, even though we’re the same.”

He peers at me through narrowed eyes. “The same?” he demands. “Do you think a seed planted in goblin soil grows to be the same plant as it would have in the mortal world? No, little seed. I do not know what you are, but we are not the same. I came here fully grown.”

And with that, he walks on, leaving me scowling after him.

I find Lady Asha in a canopied bed, her head propped up on pillows. Her horns don’t look as though they make it easy for her to find a comfortable position, but I guess when they’re your horns, you’re used to them.

Two courtiers, one in a gown and the other in trousers and a coat with an opening for delicate wings in the back, sit in chairs beside her. One reads from a collection of gossipy sonnets. The servant girl who brought me Lady Asha’s message lights candles, and the scents of sage, clove, and lavender permeate the air.

when I come in, the courtiers remain seated far longer than they ought, and when they rise to make their bows, they do so with pointed lethargy. Lady Asha stays abed, gazing at me with a slight smile, as though we both know a distasteful secret.

I think of my own mother, as I have not in a long time. I recall the way she threw back her head when she laughed. How she let us stay up late during the summer, chasing one another through the backyard in the moonlight, my hands sticky with melted Popsicle, the stink of Dad’s forge heavy in the air. I recall waking in the afternoon, cartoons playing in the living room and mosquito bites blooming on my skin. I think of the way she would bring me in from the car when I fell asleep on long drives. I think of the drowsy, warm feeling of being carried through the air.

who would I be without any of that?

“Don’t worry about getting up,” I tell Lady Asha. She looks surprised, and then offended, by the implication that she owes me the courtesies of my new position. The courtier in the coat has a gleam in his eye that makes me think he is going to go and tell absolutely everyone what he’s witnessed. I doubt very much that the story will flatter me.

“we will speak later,” Lady Asha says to her friends, a frigid tone in her voice. They seem to take being dismissed in stride. with another

bow—this one made carefully to both of us—they depart, barely waiting until the door shuts to begin whispering to each other.

“Your visit must be a kindness,” Cardan’s mother says. “with you so recently returned to us. And so recently coming into a throne.”

I force myself not to smile. The inability to lie makes for some interesting sentences.

“Come,” she says. “Sit a moment with me.”

I know the Bomb would say that this is another instance where I am letting her tell me what to do, but it seems petty to object to such minor high-handedness.

“when I brought you from the Tower of Forgetting to my den of spies,” I say, in case she needs reminding of why she should worry about making me angry, “you said you wanted to be away from the High King, your son. But you two seem to have made up. You must be so pleased.”

She makes a pout. “Cardan was not an easy child to love, and he’s only grown worse with time. He would scream to be held, and then once picked up he would bite and kick his way out of my arms. He would find a game and obsess over it until it was conquered, then burn all the pieces. Once you’re no longer a challenge, he will despise you.”

I stare at her. “And you’re giving me this warning out of the kindness of your heart?”

She smiles. “I am giving you this warning because it doesn’t matter. You’re already doomed, Queen of Elfhame. You already love him. You already loved him when you questioned me about him instead of your own mother. And you will still love him, mortal girl, long after his feelings evaporate like morning dew.”

I can’t help thinking of Cardan’s silence when I asked if he liked that I was afraid. A part of him will always delight in cruelty. Even if he has changed, he could change again.

I hate being a fool. I hate the idea of my emotions getting the better of me, of making me weak. But my fear of being a fool turned me into one. I should have guessed the answer to Cardan’s riddle long before I did. Even if I didn’t understand it was a riddle, it was still a loophole to exploit. But I was so shamed by falling for his trick that I stopped looking for ways around it. And even after I discovered one, I made no plan to use it.

Maybe it isn’t the worst thing to want to be loved, even if you’re not.

Even if it hurts. Maybe being human isn’t always being weak.

Maybe it was the shame that was the problem.

But it’s not as though my own fears are the only reason I was in exile for so long. “Is that why you intercepted the letters he sent? To protect me? Or was it because you’re afraid that he won’t tire of me? Because, my lady, I will always be a challenge.”

I admit, it’s a guess about her and the letters. But not many people would have the access and power to stop a message from the High King. No ambassador from a foreign kingdom. Probably not a member of the Living Council. And I don’t think Lady Asha likes me very much.

She regards me mildly. “Many things become lost. Or destroyed.” Given that she can’t lie, that’s practically a confession.

“I see,” I say, standing. “In that case, I will take your advice in exactly the spirit with which you gave it.” As I look back at her from the door, I say what I believe she will least like to hear. “And next time, I will expect your curtsy.”

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