Chapter no 20

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

I ‌am halfway down the hall when a pixie knight rushes up to me, her armor polished to a shine that reflects her cerulean skin. “Your Majesty, you must come quickly,” she says, putting her hand to her heart.

“Fand?” when we were at the palace school, we both dreamed of knighthood. It seems that one of us achieved it.

She looks at me as though surprised at being remembered, although it wasn’t very long ago. I suppose she, too, believes I have ascended to dizzying and perhaps memory-altering heights.

Sir Fand,” I correct myself, and she smiles. I grin back at her. Although we were not friends, we were friendly—and for me, in the High Court, that was a rarity. “why do I have to come quickly?”

Her expression goes grave again. “A battalion from the Undersea is in the throne room.”

“Ah,” I say, and let her escort me through the halls. Some Folk bow as I pass. Others quite pointedly do not. Not sure how to behave, I ignore both.

“You ought to have your own guard,” Sir Fand says, keeping pace just behind me.

Everyone seems very fond of telling me how I should do this job. But, at least in this case, my silence is apparently enough of an answer for her to fall silent.

when we get to the brugh, it is mostly empty. Randalin is wringing his wizened hands as he studies the soldiers of the Undersea—selkies

and the pale-skinned Folk that make me think of those they called drowned ones. Nicasia stands in front of them, in armor of iridescent scales, her hair dressed with shark teeth, clasping Cardan’s hands in hers. Her eyes are red-rimmed and swollen, as though she’s been weeping. His dark head is bent toward hers, and I am reminded that they were once lovers.

She whirls when she sees me, wild with anger. “This is your father’s doing!”

I take a step back in surprise. “what?”

“Queen Orlagh,” Cardan says with what seems like slightly exaggerated calm. “Apparently, she was struck with something like elf- shot. It burrowed deep into her flesh, but it seems to have stopped short of her heart. when there is an attempt to remove it, it seems to resist magical and nonmagical extraction. It moves as though it’s alive, but there may be some iron in it.”

I stop, my mind reeling. The Ghost. That’s where Madoc sent him, to the sea. Not to Pill the queen, which would anger the sea Folk and bring them more firmly to Cardan’s side, but to wound her in such a way that he could hold her death over her. How could her people risk fighting Madoc when he would stay his hand so long as Orlagh stayed put?

“I’m so sorry.” It’s an utterly human thing to say and utterly useless, but I blurt it out anyway.

Nicasia curls her lip. “You ought to be.” After a moment, she releases Cardan’s hand with some apparent regret. She would have married him once. I very much doubt that my appearance has made her give up the notion. “I must go to my mother’s side. The Court of the Undersea is in chaos.”

Once, Nicasia and her mother held me captive, locked me in a cage, and tried to take my will from me. Sometimes, in dreams, I am still there, still floating in the dark and the cold.

“we are your allies, Nicasia,” Cardan reminds her. “Should you need us.”

“I count on you to avenge my mother, if nothing else,” she says. Then, with another hostile glance in my direction, she turns and leaves the hall. The Undersea soldiers fall into step behind her.

I cannot even be annoyed with her. I am reeling from the success of Madoc’s gambit—and the sheer ambition of it. The death of Orlagh would be no small thing to engineer; she is one of the ancient and

established powers of Faerie, older even than Eldred. But to wound her in such a way seems harder still.

“Now that Orlagh is weak, it’s possible there will be challengers to her throne,” Randalin says with a certain amount of regret, as though doubting Nicasia would be up to what was required of her. “The sea is a brutal place.”

“Did they catch the would-be assassin?” I ask.

Randalin frowns at me, as he often does when I ask a question to which he doesn’t know the answer but doesn’t wish to admit it. “I do not believe so. Had they, I am sure they would have told us.”

which means he may come here after all. which means Cardan is still in danger. And we have far fewer allies than we did before. This is the problem with playing defense—you can never be sure where your enemy will strike, so you expend more resources trying to cover every eventuality.

“The generals will wish to adjust their plans,” Randalin says with a significant look in Cardan’s direction. “Perhaps we should summon them.”

“Yes,” says Cardan. “Yes, I suppose we should.”

we repair to the strategy rooms and are greeted by a cold dinner of duck eggs, currant bread, and paper-thin slices of roasted boar. The master of servants, a large, spidery woman, waits for us, along with the generals. The discussion quickly takes on a festival air, with half of it turning to entertaining the coming lords and ladies of the low Courts and the other half planning a war.

The new Grand General turns out to be an ogre named Yorn. He was appointed during my exile. I know nothing to his detriment, but he has a nervous demeanor. He sweeps in with three of his generals and a lot of questions about the maps and materials the Living Council passed on from me. Tentatively, he begins to reimagine our naval strategy.

Once more, I try to guess what Madoc’s next move might be. I feel as though I have so many pieces of the puzzle but fail to see how they fit together. what I do know is that he’s cutting off the exits, pruning the variables, reducing our ability to surprise him, so that his plans are most likely to succeed.

I can only hope that we can surprise him in turn.

“we should just attack the moment his ships appear on the horizon,” says Yorn. “Not give him a chance to call for parlay. It will be harder

without the aid of the Undersea, but not impossible. we still have the greater force.”

Due to the Folk’s customs of hospitality, if Madoc requests it, he and a small party will be welcomed into Elfhame for the purpose of discussing alternatives to war. So long as he doesn’t raise a weapon, he can eat and drink and talk with us for however much time he likes. when he is ready to depart, the conflict will start right where it left off. “He’ll send a bird ahead,” says Baphen. “And his ships may well come shrouded in fog or shadows. we do not know what magic he has at his


“He wants to duel,” I say. “As soon as he draws a weapon, he will break the terms of parlay. And he will not be allowed to bring a large force onto the land for the purposes of discussing peace.”

“Better if we ring the isles in ships,” Yorn says, once again moving strategy pieces around a beautifully drawn map of Insweal, Insmire, Insmoor, and Insear that lies on the table. “we can prevent Madoc’s soldiers from landing. Shoot down any birds that come our way. we have allies from the low Courts to add to our force.”

“what if Madoc gets aid from the Undersea?” I ask. The others look at me in astonishment.

“But we have a treaty,” Randalin says. “Perhaps you didn’t hear that, because—”

“Yes, you have a treaty now,” I say, not wanting to be reminded of my exile again. “But Orlagh could pass the crown to Nicasia. If she did, a Queen Nicasia would be free to make a new alliance with Madoc, just as once the Court of Teeth put a changeling on their throne, they were free to march against Elfhame. And Nicasia might ally with Madoc if he would make her mother well.”

“Do you think that’s likely to happen?” Yorn asks Cardan, frowning over his plans.

The High King makes a nonchalant gesture. “Jude likes to suppose the worst of both her enemies and her allies. Her reward is occasionally being wrong about us.”

“Hard to remember an occasion of that,” I say to him under my breath.

He lifts a single brow.

Fand steps into the room at that moment, looking very aware that she doesn’t belong. “Your pardon, but I—I have a message for the

queen,” she says with a nervous stammer in her voice. “From her sister.”

“As you can see, the queen—” Randalin begins. “which sister?” I demand, crossing the room to her.

“Taryn,” she says, looking a lot calmer now that she is speaking only to me. Her voice drops low. “She said to meet her in the High King’s old dwelling.”

“when?” I ask, my heart beating double-time. Taryn is a careful person, mindful of proprieties. She is fond neither of cryptic messages nor sinister meeting places. If she wants me to come to Hollow Hall, something is very wrong.

“As soon as you can get away,” Fand says.

“I’ll come now,” I say, and then turn back to the councilors, the generals, and the High King. “There’s been a family difficulty. You will excuse me.”

“I will accompany you,” Cardan says, rising. I open my mouth to explain all the reasons that he can’t go. The problem is that as I look up into his gold-rimmed eyes and he blinks mock-innocently down at me, I can’t think of a single one that will actually stop him.

“Good,” he says, sweeping past me. “we’re decided.”

Yorn looks a little relieved that we’re leaving. Randalin, predictably, looks annoyed. Baphen is busily eating a duck egg while several other generals are deep in conversation about how many of the low Courts will bring boats and what that means for their maps.

In the hall, I am forced to walk faster to catch up with Cardan. “You don’t even know where we’re going.”

He pushes black curls away from his face. “Fand, where are we going?”

The knight looks miserable but answers. “To Hollow Hall.”

“Ah,” he says. “Then I am already proven useful. You will need me to sweet-talk the door.”

Hollow Hall belonged to Cardan’s eldest brother, Balekin. Considered to be the most influential of the Grackles—a faction of the High Court most interested in feasts, debauchery, and excess—Balekin was famous for the wildness of his revels. He tricked mortals into serving him, glamouring them so they remembered only what he wanted them to remember. He was awful, and that was before he led a bloody coup against the rest of his family in a bid for the throne.

He’s also the person who raised Cardan.

As I consider all this, Cardan sends Fand off to have the royal coach brought around. I want to protest that I can ride, but I am not so healed yet that I am sure I should. A few minutes later, I am being handed up into a beautifully outfitted royal carriage, with embroidered seats in a pattern of vines and beetles. Cardan settles himself opposite me, leaning his head against the window frame as the horses begin to run.

As we leave the palace, I realize it is later than I thought. Dawn is threatening on the horizon. My long sleep has given me a distorted view of time.

I wonder at Taryn’s message. what possible reason could she have for bringing me to Balekin’s estate? Could it have something to do with Locke’s death?

Could it be another betrayal?

Finally, the horses come to a stop. I climb from the carriage as one of the guards jumps down from the front to properly hand me down. He looks flummoxed to find me already standing beside the horses, but I hadn’t thought to wait. I am not used to being royalty and worry that I will not get used to it.

Cardan emerges, his gaze going to neither me nor the guard, but to Hollow Hall itself. His tail lashes the air behind him, showing all the emotion that’s not on his face.

Covered in a heavy coat of ivy, with a crooked tower and pale and hairy roots hanging from its balconies, this was once his home. I witnessed Cardan’s being whipped by a human servant at Balekin’s direction. I am sure far worse things happened there, although he has never spoken of them.

I rub my thumb over the stub of my missing finger top, bitten off by one of Madoc’s guards, and realize abruptly that if I told Cardan about it, he might understand. Maybe more than anyone, he’d comprehend the odd mingling of fear and shame I feel—even now—when I think of it. For all our conflicts, there are moments when we understand each other entirely too well.

“why are we here?” he asks.

“This is where Taryn wanted to meet,” I say. “I didn’t think she even knew the place.”

“She doesn’t,” Cardan says.

The polished wood door is still carved with an enormous and sinister face, still flanked with lanterns, but sprites no longer fly in desperate circles within. A soft glow of magic emanates instead.

“My king,” the door says fondly, its eyes opening.

Cardan smiles in return. “My door,” he says with a slight hitch in his voice, as though perhaps everything about returning here feels strange.

“Hail and welcome,” it says, and swings wide.

“Is there a girl like this one inside?” he asks, indicating me. “Yes,” says the door. “Very like. She’s below, with the other.” “Below?” I say as we walk into the echoing hall.

“There are dungeons,” Cardan says. “Most Folk thought they were merely decorative. Alas, they were not.”

“why would Taryn be down there?” I ask, but to that, he has no answer. we go down, the royal guard ahead of me. The basement smells strongly of earth. The room we enter contains little, only some furniture that seems unsuitable for sitting upon and chains. Big braziers burn brightly enough to heat my cheeks.

Taryn sits beside an oubliette. She is dressed simply, a cloak over her shift, and without the grandeur of clothes and hair, she looks young. It frightens me to think I might look that young, too.

when she sees Cardan, she pushes herself to her feet, one hand moving to her belly protectively. She sinks into a low curtsy.

“Taryn?” he says.

“He came looking for you,” she tells me. “when he saw me in your rooms, he said I had to restrain him because Madoc had given him more commands. He told me about the dungeons and I brought him here. It seemed like a place no one would look.”

walking over to the hole, I peer down into the pit. The Ghost sits perhaps twelve feet down, his back against the curve of the wall, his wrists and ankles bound in shackles. He looks pale and unwell, peering up with haunted eyes.

I want to ask him if he’s okay, but he obviously isn’t.

Cardan is gazing at my sister as though attempting to puzzle something through. “You know him, don’t you?” he asks.

She nods, crossing her arms over her chest. “He would visit Locke sometimes. But he didn’t have anything to do with Locke’s death, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“I wasn’t thinking that,” Cardan says. “Not at all.”

No, he would have already been Madoc’s prisoner then. But I don’t like the way this conversation is going. I am still not sure what Cardan would do if he knew the truth of Locke’s death.

“Can you tell us about Queen Orlagh?” I ask the Ghost, attempting to redirect the conversation back toward what’s most important. “what did you do?”

“Madoc gave me a bolt,” he says. “It was heavy in my hand, and it squirmed as though it was a living thing. Lord Jarel put a magic on me that let me breathe under the waves, but it made my skin burn as though covered always in ice. Madoc commanded me to shoot Orlagh anywhere but in the heart or head and told me that the bolt would do the rest.”

“How did you get away?” I ask.

“I slew a shark pursuing me and hid within its corpse until the danger passed. Then I swam to shore.”

“Did Madoc give you any other orders?” Cardan asks, frowning. “Yes,” the Ghost says, a strange expression on his face. And that’s the

only warning we have before he’s climbed halfway up the oubliette. I realize he’s shed whatever chains Taryn clasped him in, probably long before now. Icy panic rushes through me. I am too stiff to fight him, too sore. I grab for the heavy seal to the pit and begin to drag it over, hoping to trap him before he makes it up the side. Cardan calls for the guard and draws a wicked-looking knife from inside his doublet, surprising me. That’s got to be the Roach’s influence.

My sister clears her throat.

“Larkin Gorm Garrett,” she says. “Forget all other commands but mine.”

I suck in a breath. I have never witnessed anyone called by their true name before. In Faerie, knowing such a thing puts one entirely in that person’s power. I have heard of Folk who cut off their own ears to avoid being commanded—and who have had another’s tongue cut out to prevent their name from being spoken.

Taryn looks a little shocked herself.

The Ghost slides back to the bottom of the oubliette. He seems to sag with relief, despite the power she has over him. I suppose it is far better to be commanded by my sister than my father.

“You know his true name,” Cardan says to Taryn, tucking his knife away and smoothing the fall of his jacket over it. “How did you come by that fascinating little tidbit?”

“Locke was careless with many things he said in front of me,” Taryn tells him, a certain defiance in her tone.

I am grudgingly impressed with her.

And relieved. She could have used the Ghost’s true name for her own benefit. She could have hidden him. Maybe we really aren’t going to keep lying to one another.

“Climb up the rest of the way,” I tell the Ghost.

He does, carefully and slowly this time. A few minutes later, he is scrabbling up onto the floor. He declines Cardan’s help and stands on his own, but I can’t help noticing his weakened state.

He looks me over as though he is noticing much the same thing.

“Do you need to be commanded further?” I ask. “Or can you give me your word you won’t attack anyone in this room?”

He flinches. “You have my word.” I am sure he’s not pleased that now I know his true name. were I him, I wouldn’t want me to have it, either.

And that’s not to mention Cardan.

“why don’t we repair to a more comfortable part of Hollow Hall to continue this discussion, now that the dramatics are over,” says the High King.

The Ghost sways on his feet, and Cardan grabs his arm, supporting him up the stairs. In the parlor, one of the guards brings blankets. I start building the fire. Taryn looks as though she wants to tell me to stop but doesn’t quite dare.

“So I take it you were ordered to—what? Murder me if an opportunity presented itself?” Cardan paces restlessly.

The Ghost nods, pulling the blankets closer around him. His hazel eyes are dull, and his dark blond hair is in messy tangles. “I hoped our paths wouldn’t cross and dreaded what would happen if they did.”

“Yes, well, I suppose that we’re both lucky Taryn was helpfully lurking about the palace,” says Cardan.

“I will not go to my husband’s house until I am sure Jude isn’t in any danger,” she says.

“Jude and I had a misunderstanding,” Cardan says carefully. “But we’re not enemies. And I am not your enemy, either, Taryn.”

“You think everything’s a game,” she says. “You and Locke.”

“Unlike Locke, I never thought love was a game,” he says. “You may accuse me of much, but not that.”

“Garrett,” I interrupt, in desperation, because I am not sure I want to hear more. “Is there anything you can tell us? whatever Madoc is planning, we need to know.”

He shakes his head. “The last time I saw him, he was furious. with you. with himself. with me, once he knew that you’d discovered I was there. He gave me my orders and sent me off, but I don’t think he’d intended to send me so soon.”

I nod. “Right. He had to move up the timetable.” when I left, the sword was far from finished. That had to have been frustrating, to be forced to act before he was entirely ready.

I don’t believe Madoc knows I am the queen. I don’t think he even knows I am alive. That’s got to be worth something.

“If the Council finds out we have Orlagh’s attacker in custody, things will not go well,” Cardan says with sudden decision. “They will urge me to hand you over to the Undersea to curry favor for Elfhame. It will be only a matter of time before Nicasia knows you are in our hands. Let’s take you back to the palace and put you in the Bomb’s custody. She can decide what to do with you.”

“Very well,” the Ghost says with some combination of resignation and relief.

Cardan calls for his carriage again. Taryn yawns as she climbs inside, sitting next to the Ghost.

I lean my head against the window, only half-listening as Cardan manages to persuade my sister to tell him a little bit about the mortal world. He sounds delighted at her description of slushy machines, with their violently bright colors and sugary strangeness. She is halfway through an explanation of gummy worms when we are back at the palace and climbing down from the carriage.

“I will escort the Ghost to where he’ll be residing,” Cardan tells me. “Jude, you ought to rest.”

It seems impossible that it was just today I woke from some drugged sleep, just today the Bomb took out my stitches.

“I’ll walk you back to your rooms,” Taryn says with something of the conspiratorial, leading me in the direction of the royal chamber.

I go with her down the hall, two of the royal guard following us at a discreet distance.

“Do you trust him?” she whispers when Cardan is no longer within earshot.

“Sometimes,” I admit.

She gives me a sympathetic look. “He was nice in the carriage. I didn’t know he knew how to be nice.”

That makes me laugh. At the door to my chambers, she puts her hand on my arm. “He was trying to impress you, you know. Talking to me.”

I frown. “I think he just wanted to hear about weird candy.”

She shakes her head. “He wants you to like him. But just because he wants you to doesn’t mean you should.” Then she leaves me to go inside the enormous royal chambers alone.

I take off my dress and hang it over a screen. I borrow another of Cardan’s ridiculous ruffly shirts and put it on, then I climb into the big bed. My heart thumps nervously in my chest as I pull up to my shoulders a coverlet embroidered with a hunting stag.

Our marriage is an alliance. It is a bargain. I tell myself that it doesn’t have to be more than that. I try to tell myself that Cardan’s desire for me has always been mixed up with disgust and that I am better off without it.

I fall asleep waiting for the sound of the door opening, for his step on the wooden floor.

But when I wake, I am still alone. No lamps are lit. No pillows moved.

Nothing is changed. I sit upright.

Perhaps he spent all the rest of the morning and afternoon in the Court of Shadows, playing darts with the Ghost and checking on the Roach’s healing. But I can more easily imagine him in the great hall, overseeing the last dregs of the night’s revelry and swilling gallons of wine, all to avoid lying beside me in bed.

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