Chapter no 2

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

T‌onight, it’s a relief to head to work.‌

Faeries in the mortal world have a different set of needs than those in Elfhame. The solitary fey, surviving at the edges of Faerie, do not concern themselves with revels and courtly machinations.

And it turns out they have plenty of odd jobs for someone like me, a mortal who knows their ways and isn’t worried about getting into the occasional fight. I met Bryern a week after I left Elfhame. He turned up outside the apartment complex, a black-furred, goat-headed, and goat- hooved faerie with bowler hat in hand, saying he was an old friend of the Roach.

“I understand you’re in a unique position,” he said, looking at me with those strange golden goat eyes, their black pupils a horizontal rectangle. “Presumed dead, is that correct? No Social Security number. No mortal schooling.”

“And looking for work,” I told him, figuring out where this was going. “Off the books.”

“You cannot get any further off the books than with me,” he assured me, placing one clawed hand over his heart. “Allow me to introduce myself. Bryern. A phooka, if you hadn’t already guessed.”

He didn’t ask for oaths of loyalty or any promises whatsoever. I could work as much as I wanted, and the pay was commensurate with my daring.

Tonight, I meet him by the water. I glide up on the secondhand bike I acquired. The back tire deflates quickly, but I got it cheap. It works

pretty well to get me around. Bryern is dressed with typical fussiness: His hat has a band decorated with a few brightly colored duck feathers, and he’s paired that with a tweed jacket. As I come closer, he withdraws a watch from one pocket and peers at it with an exaggerated frown.

“Oh, am I late?” I ask. “Sorry. I’m used to telling time by the slant of moonlight.”

He gives me an annoyed look. “Just because you’ve lived in the High Court, you need not put on airs. You’re no one special now.”

I am the High Queen of Klfhame. The thought comes to me unbidden, and I bite the inside of my cheek to keep myself from saying those ridiculous words. He’s right: I am no one special now.

“what’s the job?” I ask instead, as blandly as I can.

“One of the Folk in Old Port has been eating locals. I have a contract for someone willing to extract a promise from her to cease.”

I find it hard to believe that he cares what happens to humans—or cares enough to pay for me to do something about it. “Local mortals?”

He shakes his head. “No. No. Us Folk.” Then he seems to remember to whom he’s speaking and looks a little flustered. I try not to take his slip as a compliment.

Killing and eating the Folk? Nothing about that signals an easy job. “who’s hiring?”

He gives a nervous laugh. “No one who wants their name associated with the deed. But they’re willing to remunerate you for making it happen.”

One of the reasons Bryern likes hiring me is that I can get close to the Folk. They don’t expect a mortal to be the one to pickpocket them or to stick a knife in their side. They don’t expect a mortal to be unaffected by glamour or to know their customs or to see through their terrible bargains.

Another reason is, I need the money enough that I’m willing to take jobs like this—ones that I know right from the start are going to suck.

“Address?” I ask, and he slips me a folded paper. I open it and glance down. “This better pay well.”

“Five hundred American dollars,” he says, as though this is an extravagant sum.

Our rent is twelve hundred a month, not to mention groceries and utilities. with Heather gone, my half is about eight hundred. And I’d

like to get a new tire for my bike. Five hundred isn’t nearly enough, not for something like this.

“Fifteen hundred,” I counter, raising my eyebrows. “In cash, verifiable by iron. Half up front, and if I don’t come back, you pay Vivienne the other half as a gift to my bereaved family.”

Bryern presses his lips together, but I know he’s got the money. He just doesn’t want to pay me enough that I can get choosy about jobs.

“A thousand,” he compromises, reaching into a pocket inside his tweed jacket and withdrawing a stack of bills banded by a silver clip. “And look, I have half on me right now. You can take it.”

“Fine,” I agree. It’s a decent paycheck for what could be a single night’s work if I’m lucky.

He hands over the cash with a sniff. “Let me know when you’ve completed the task.”

There’s an iron fob on my key chain. I run it ostentatiously over the edges of the money to make sure it’s real. It never hurts to remind Bryern that I’m careful.

“Plus fifty bucks for expenses,” I say on impulse.

He frowns. After a moment, he reaches into a different part of his jacket and hands over the extra cash. “Just take care of this,” he says. The lack of quibbling is a bad sign. Maybe I should have asked more questions before I agreed to this job. I definitely should have negotiated harder.

Too late now.

I get back on my bike and, with a farewell wave to Bryern, kick off toward downtown. Once upon a time, I imagined myself as a knight astride a steed, glorying in contests of skill and honor. Too bad my talents turned out to lie in another direction entirely.

I suppose I am a skilled enough murderer of Folk, but what I really excel at is getting under their skin. Hopefully that will serve me well in persuading a cannibal faerie to do what I want.

Before I go to confront her, I decide to ask around.

First, I see a hob named Magpie, who lives in a tree in Deering Oaks Park. He says he’s heard she’s a redcap, which isn’t great news, but at least since I grew up with one, I am well informed about their nature. Redcaps crave violence and blood and murder—in fact, they get a little twitchy when there’s none to be had for stretches of time. And if they’re traditionalists, they have a cap they dip in the blood of their

vanquished enemies, supposedly to grant them some stolen vitality of the slain.

I ask for a name, but Magpie doesn’t know. He sends me to Ladhar, a clurichaun who slinks around the back of bars, sucking froth from the tops of beers when no one is looking and swindling mortals in games of chance.

“You didn’t know?” Ladhar says, lowering his voice. “Grima Mog.”

I almost accuse him of lying, despite knowing better. Then I have a brief, intense fantasy of tracking down Bryern and making him choke on every dollar he gave me. “what the hell is she doing here?”

Grima Mog is the fearsome general of the Court of Teeth in the North. The same Court that the Roach and the Bomb escaped from. when I was little, Madoc read to me at bedtime from the memoirs of her battle strategies. Just thinking about facing her, I break out in a cold sweat.

I can’t fight her. And I don’t think I have a good chance of tricking her, either.

“Given the boot, I hear,” Ladhar says. “Maybe she ate someone Lady Nore liked.”

I don’t have to do this job, I remind myself. I am no longer part of Dain’s Court of Shadows. I am no longer trying to rule from behind High King Cardan’s throne. I don’t need to take big risks.

But I am curious.

Combine that with an abundance of wounded pride and you find yourself on the front steps of Grima Mog’s warehouse around dawn. I know better than to go empty-handed. I’ve got raw meat from a butcher shop chilling in a Styrofoam cooler, a few sloppily made honey sandwiches wrapped in foil, and a bottle of decent sour beer.

Inside, I wander down a hall until I come to the door to what appears to be an apartment. I knock three times and hope that if nothing else, maybe the smell of the food will cover up the smell of my fear.

The door opens, and a woman in a housecoat peers out. She’s bent over, leaning on a polished cane of black wood. “what do you want, deary?”

Seeing through her glamour as I do, I note the green tint to her skin and her overlarge teeth. Like my foster father: Madoc. The guy who killed my parents. The guy who read me her battle strategies. Madoc,

once the Grand General of the High Court. Now enemy of the throne and not real happy with me, either.

Hopefully he and High King Cardan will ruin each other’s lives.

“I brought you some gifts,” I say, holding up the cooler. “Can I come in? I want to make a bargain.”

She frowns a little.

“You can’t keep eating random Folk without someone being sent to try to persuade you to stop,” I say.

“Perhaps I will eat you, pretty child,” she counters, brightening. But she steps back to allow me into her lair. I guess she can’t make a meal of me in the hall.

The apartment is loft-style, with high ceilings and brick walls. Nice. Floors polished and glossed up. Big windows letting in light and a decent view of the town. It’s furnished with old things. The tufting on a few of the pieces is torn, and there are marks that could have come from a stray cut of a knife.

The whole place smells like blood. A coppery, metal smell, overlaid with a slightly cloying sweetness. I put my gifts on a heavy wooden table.

“For you,” I say. “In the hopes you’ll overlook my rudeness in calling on you uninvited.”

She sniffs at the meat, turns a honey sandwich over in her hand, and pops off the cap on the beer with her fist. Taking a long draught, she looks me over.

“Someone instructed you in the niceties. I wonder why they bothered, little goat. You’re obviously the sacrifice sent in the hopes my appetite can be sated with mortal flesh.” She smiles, showing her teeth. It’s possible she dropped her glamour in that moment, although, since I saw through it already, I can’t tell.

I blink at her. She blinks back, clearly waiting for a reaction.

By not screaming and running for the door, I have annoyed her. I can tell. I think she was looking forward to chasing me when I ran.

“You’re Grima Mog,” I say. “Leader of armies. Destroyer of your enemies. Is this really how you want to spend your retirement?”

“Retirement?” She echoes the word as though I have dealt her the deadliest insult. “Though I have been cast down, I will find another army to lead. An army bigger than the first.”

Sometimes I tell myself something a lot like that. Hearing it aloud, from someone else’s mouth, is jarring. But it gives me an idea. “well, the local Folk would prefer not to get eaten while you’re planning your next move. Obviously, being human, I’d rather you didn’t eat mortals—I doubt they’d give you what you’re looking for anyway.”

She waits for me to go on.

“A challenge,” I say, thinking of everything I know about redcaps. “That’s what you crave, right? A good fight. I bet the Folk you killed weren’t all that special. A waste of your talents.”

“who sent you?” she asks finally. Reevaluating. Trying to figure out my angle.

“what did you do to piss her off?” I ask. “Your queen? It must have been something big to get kicked out of the Court of Teeth.”

Who sent you?” she roars. I guess I hit a nerve. My best skill.

I try not to smile, but I’ve missed the rush of power that comes with playing a game like this, of strategy and cunning. I hate to admit it, but I’ve missed risking my neck. There’s no room for regrets when you’re busy trying to win. Or at least not to die. “I told you. The local Folk who don’t want to get eaten.”

“why you?” she asks. “why would they send a slip of a girl to try to convince me of anything?”

Scanning the room, I take note of a round box on top of the refrigerator. An old-fashioned hatbox. My gaze snags on it. “Probably because it would be no loss to them if I failed.”

At that, Grima Mog laughs, taking another sip of the sour beer. “A fatalist. So how will you persuade me?”

I walk to the table and pick up the food, looking for an excuse to get close to that hatbox. “First, by putting away your groceries.”

Grima Mog looks amused. “I suppose an old lady like myself could use a young thing doing a few errands around the house. But be careful. You might find more than you bargained for in my larder, little goat.”

I open the door of the fridge. The remains of the Folk she’s killed greet me. She’s collected arms and heads, preserved somehow, baked and broiled and put away just like leftovers after a big holiday dinner. My stomach turns.

A wicked smile crawls across her face. “I assume you hoped to challenge me to a duel? Intended to brag about how you’d put up a good fight? Now you see what it means to lose to Grima Mog.”

I take a deep breath. Then with a hop, I knock the hatbox off the top of the fridge and into my arms.

“Don’t touch that!” she shouts, pushing to her feet as I rip off the lid. And there it is: the cap. Lacquered with blood, layers and layers of it. She’s halfway across the floor to me, teeth bared. I pull out a lighter from my pocket and flick the flame to life with my thumb. She halts

abruptly at the sight of the fire.

“I know you’ve spent long, long years building the patina of this cap,” I say, willing my hand not to shake, willing the flame not to go out. “Probably there’s blood on here from your first kill, and your last. without it, there will be no reminder of your past conquests, no trophies, nothing. Now I need you to make a deal with me. Vow that there will be no more murders. Not the Folk, not humans, for so long as you reside in the mortal world.”

“And if I don’t, you’ll burn my treasure?” Grima Mog finishes for me. “There’s no honor in that.”

“I guess I could offer to fight you,” I say. “But I’d probably lose. This way, I win.”

Grima Mog points the tip of her black cane toward me. “You’re Madoc’s human child, aren’t you? And our new High King’s seneschal in exile. Tossed out like me.”

I nod, discomfited at being recognized.

“what did you do?” she asks, a satisfied little smile on her face. “It must have been something big.”

“I was a fool,” I say, because I might as well admit it. “I gave up the bird in my hand for two in the bush.”

She gives a big, booming laugh. “well, aren’t we a pair, redcap’s daughter? But murder is in my bones and blood. I don’t plan on giving up killing. If I am to be stuck in the mortal world, then I intend to have some fun.”

I bring the flame closer to the hat. The bottom of it begins to blacken, and a terrible stench fills the air.

“Stop!” she shouts, giving me a look of raw hatred. “Enough. Let me make you an offer, little goat. we spar. If you lose, my cap is returned to me, unburnt. I continue to hunt as I have. And you give me your littlest finger.”

“To eat?” I ask, taking the flame away from the hat.

“If I like,” she returns. “Or to wear like a brooch. what do you care what I do with it? The point is that it will be mine.”

“And why would I agree to that?”

“Because if you win, you will have your promise from me. And I will tell you something of significance regarding your High King.”

“I don’t want to know anything about him,” I snap, too fast and too angrily. I hadn’t been expecting her to invoke Cardan.

Her laugh this time is low and rumbling. “Little liar.”

we stare at each other for a long moment. Grima Mog’s gaze is amiable enough. She knows she has me. I am going to agree to her terms. I know it, too, although it’s ridiculous. She’s a legend. I don’t see how I can win.

But Cardan’s name pounds in my ears.

Does he have a new seneschal? Does he have a new lover? Is he going to Council meetings himself? Does he talk about me? Do he and Locke mock me together? Does Taryn laugh?

“we spar until first blood,” I say, shoving everything else out of my head. It’s a pleasure to have someone to focus my anger on. “I’m not giving you my finger,” I say. “You win, you get your cap. Period. And I walk out of here. The concession I am making is fighting you at all.”

“First blood is dull.” Grima Mog leans forward, her body alert. “Let’s agree to fight until one of us cries off. Let it end somewhere between bloodshed and crawling away to die on the way home.” She sighs, as if thinking a happy thought. “Give me a chance to break every bone in your scrawny body.”

“You’re betting on my pride.” I tuck her cap into one pocket and the lighter into the other.

She doesn’t deny it. “Did I bet right?”

First blood is dull. It’s all dancing around each other, looking for an opening. It’s not real fighting. when I answer her, the word rushes out of me. “Yes.”

“Good.” She lifts the tip of the cane toward the ceiling. “Let’s go to the roof.”

“well, this is very civilized,” I say.

“You better have brought a weapon, because I’ll loan you nothing.” She heads toward the door with a heavy sigh, as though she really is the old woman she’s glamoured to be.

I follow her out of her apartment, down the dimly lit hall, and into the even darker stairway, my nerves firing. I hope I know what I’m doing. She goes up the steps two at a time, eager now, slamming open a metal door at the top. I hear the clatter of steel as she draws a thin sword out of her cane. A greedy smile pulls her lips too wide, showing off her sharp teeth.

I draw the long knife I have hidden in my boot. It doesn’t have the best reach, but I don’t have the ability to glamour things; I can’t very well ride my bike around with Nightfell on my back.

Still, right now, I really wish I’d figured out a way to do just that.

I step onto the asphalt roof of the building. The sun is starting to rise, tinting the sky pink and gold. A chill breeze blows through the air, bringing with it the scents of concrete and garbage, along with goldenrod from the nearby park.

My heart speeds with some combination of terror and eagerness. when Grima Mog comes at me, I am ready. I parry and move out of the way. I do it again and again, which annoys her.

“You promised me a threat,” she growls, but at least I have a sense of how she moves. I know she’s hungry for blood, hungry for violence. I know she’s used to hunting prey. I just hope she’s overconfident. It’s possible she will make mistakes facing someone who can fight back.

Unlikely, but possible.

when she comes at me again, I spin and kick the back of her knee hard enough to send her crashing to the ground. She roars, scrambling up and coming at me full speed. For a moment, the fury in her face and those fearsome teeth send a horrible, paralyzing jolt through me.

Monster! my mind screams.

I clench my jaw against the urge to keep dodging. Our blades shine, fish-scale bright in the new light of the day. The metal slams together, ringing like a bell. we battle across the roof, my feet clever as we scuff back and forth. Sweat starts on my brow and under my arms. My breath comes hot, clouding in the chill air.

It feels good to be fighting someone other than myself.

Grima Mog’s eyes narrow, watching me, looking for weaknesses. I am conscious of every correction Madoc ever gave me, every bad habit the Ghost tried to train out of me. She begins a series of brutal blows, trying to drive me to the edge of the building. I give ground, attempting to defend myself against the flurry, against the longer

reach of her blade. She was holding back before, but she’s not holding back now.

Again and again she pushes me toward a drop through the open air. I fight with grim determination. Perspiration slicks my skin, beads between my shoulder blades.

Then my foot smacks into a metal pipe sticking up through the asphalt. I stumble, and she strikes. It’s all I can do to avoid getting speared, and it costs me my knife, which goes hurtling off the roof. I hear it hit the street below with a dull thud.

I should never have taken this assignment. I should never have agreed to this fight. I should never have taken up Cardan’s offer of marriage and never been exiled to the mortal world.

Anger gives me a burst of energy, and I use it to get out of Grima Mog’s way, letting the momentum of her strike carry her blade down past me. Then I elbow her hard in the arm and grab for the hilt of her sword.

It’s not a very honorable move, but I haven’t been honorable for a long time. Grima Mog is very strong, but she’s also surprised. For a moment, she hesitates, but then she slams her forehead into mine. I go reeling, but I almost had her weapon.

I almost had it.

My head is pounding, and I feel a little dizzy.

“That’s cheating, girl,” she tells me. we’re both breathing hard. I feel like my lungs are made of lead.

“I’m no knight.” As though to emphasize the point, I pick up the only weapon I can see: a metal pole. It’s heavy and has no edge whatsoever, but it’s all there is. At least it’s longer than the knife.

She laughs. “You ought to concede, but I’m delighted you haven’t.” “I’m an optimist,” I say. Now when she runs at me, she has all the

speed, although I have more reach. we spin around each other, her striking and my parrying with something that swings like a baseball bat. I wish for a lot of things, but mostly to make it off this roof.

My energy is flagging. I am not used to the weight of the pipe, and it’s hard to maneuver.

Give up, my whirling brain supplies. Cry off while you’re still standing. Give her the cap, forget the money, and go home. Vivi can magic leaves into extra cash. Just this time, it wouldn’t be so bad. You’re not fighting for a Pingdom. That, you already lost.

Grima Mog comes toward me as though she can scent my despair. She puts me through my paces, a few fast, aggressive strikes in the hopes of getting under my guard.

Sweat drips down my forehead, stinging my eyes.

Madoc described fighting as a lot of things, as a game of strategy played at speed, as a dance, but right now it feels like an argument. Like an argument where she’s keeping me too busy defending myself to score any points.

Despite the strain on my muscles, I switch to holding the pipe in one hand and pull her cap from my pocket with the other.

“what are you doing? You promised—” she begins.

I throw the cap at her face. She grabs for it, distracted. In that moment, I swing the pipe at her side with all the strength in my body.

I catch her in the shoulder, and she falls with a howl of pain. I hit her again, bringing the metal rod down in an arc onto her outstretched arm, sending her sword spinning across the roof.

I raise the pipe to swing again.

“Enough.” Grima Mog looks up at me from the asphalt, blood on her pointed teeth, astonishment in her face. “I yield.”

“You do?” The pipe sags in my hand.

“Yes, little cheat,” she grits out, pushing herself into a sitting position. “You bested me. Now help me up.”

I drop the pipe and walk closer, half-expecting her to pull out a knife and sink it into my side. But she only lifts a hand and allows me to haul her to her feet. She puts her cap on her head and cradles the arm I struck in the other.

“The Court of Teeth have thrown in their lot with the old Grand General—your father—and a whole host of other traitors. I have it on good authority that your High King is to be dethroned before the next full moon. How do you like those apples?”

“Is that why you left?” I ask her. “Because you’re not a traitor?”

“I left because of another little goat. Now be off with you. This was more fun than I expected, but I think our game is at a close.”

Her words ring in my ears. Your High King. Dethroned. “You still owe me a promise,” I say, my voice coming out like a croak.

And to my surprise, Grima Mog gives me one. She vows to hunt no more in the mortal lands.

“Come fight me again,” she calls after me as I head for the stairs. “I have secrets aplenty. There are so many things you don’t know, daughter of Madoc. And I think you crave a little violence yourself.”

You'll Also Like