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Chapter no 22

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

T‌he next two days are spent mostly in the war room, where I ask Grima Mog to join Cardan’s generals and those of the low Courts in creating battle plans. The Bomb remains, too, her face masked in black netting, and the rest of her hidden away in a cowled robe of deepest black. Members of the Living Council interject their concerns. Cardan and I hunch over the table as the Folk take turns sketching out maps of possible plans of attack and defense. Small carvings are moved around. Three messengers are sent to Nicasia, but no reply comes from the Undersea.

“Madoc wants the lords and ladies and rulers of the low Courts to see a show,” Grima Mog says. “Let me fight him. I would be honored to be your champion.”

“Challenge him to a game of tiddlywinks, and I will be your champion,” says Fala.

Cardan shakes his head. “No, let Madoc come and call for his parlay. Our knights will be in place. And inside the brugh, so will our archers. we will hear him out, and we will answer him. But we will entertain no games. If Madoc wishes to move against Elfhame, he must do so, and we must strike back with all the force we possess.” He looks at the floor, then up at me.

“If he thinks he can make you duel him, then he will make it very hard not to,” I say.

“Ask him to surrender his weapons at the gate,” says the Bomb. “And when he will not, I will shoot him from the shadows.”

“I would appear to be quite the coward,” Cardan says. “Not to even hear him out.”

with those words, my heart sinks. Because pride is exactly what Madoc hopes to manipulate.

“You would be alive, while your enemy lies dead,” says the Bomb. with her face covered, it’s impossible to read her expression. “And we would have answered dishonor with dishonor.”

“I hope you are not considering agreeing to a duel,” says Randalin. “Your father wouldn’t have entertained such an absurd thought for a moment.”

“Of course not,” Cardan says. “I am no swordsman, but moreover, I don’t like giving my enemies what they want. Madoc has come for a duel, and if for no other reason than that, he should not have one.”

“Once the parlay is over,” says Yorn, looking back at his plans, “we will meet on the field of battle. And we will show him the wages of being a traitor to Elfhame. we have a clear path to victory.”

A clear path, and yet I have a sense of great foreboding. Fala catches my eye, juggling pieces from the table—a knight, a sword, a crown.

Then a winged messenger rushes into the room. “They’ve been spotted,” he says. “Madoc’s boats are coming.”

A seabird arrives moments later, a call for parlay attached to its leg.

The new Grand General moves to the door, calling for his troops. “I will move my Folk into position. we have perhaps three hours.”

“And I will gather mine,” says the Bomb, turning toward Cardan and me. “On your signal, the archers will strike.”

Cardan slips his fingers into mine. “It’s hard to work against someone you love.” I wonder if he’s thinking of Balekin.

A part of me, despite knowing that Madoc is my enemy, is tempted to imagine talking him out of this. Vivi is here, so is Taryn, and even Oak. Oriana would wish for peace, would push for it if there was a path. Maybe we could persuade him to end the war before it begins. Maybe we could come to some kind of terms. I am the High Queen, after all. Couldn’t I give him a piece of land to rule over?

But I know it’s impossible. If I granted him a boon for being a traitor, I would be encouraging only greater treason. And, regardless, Madoc wouldn’t be appeased. He comes from a line of warriors. His mother birthed him in battle, and he plans to die with a sword in his hand.

But I don’t think he plans to die that way today.

I think he plans to win.

 

 

It is nearly sunset when I am ready to walk onto the dais. I wear a gown of green and gold, and a circlet of gilded branches shines at my brow. My hair has been braided and shaped into something like two ram’s horns, and my mouth has been stained the color of berries in winter. The only thing about my attire that feels at all normal is the weight of Nightfell in a new, glamorous sheath.

Cardan, beside me, goes over final plans with the Bomb. He is dressed in a green so mossy dark that it is nearly the black of his curls.

I turn to Oak, standing with Taryn and Vivi and Heather. They will be in attendance but hidden in the same area where Taryn and I used to go to observe the revels without being seen.

“You don’t have to do this,” I tell Oak.

“I want to see my mother,” he says, voice firm. “And I want to see what happens.”

If he’s going to be High King someday, he has a right to know, but I wish he would choose a different way of finding out. whatever happens today, I doubt there’s a way to avoid its being nightmarish for Oak.

“Here’s your ring back,” he says, fishing it out from his pocket and placing it in my palm. “I kept it safe like you said.”

“I appreciate that,” I tell him softly, slipping it onto my finger. The metal is warm from being so close to his body.

“we’ll leave before things get bad,” Taryn promises, but she wasn’t there during Prince Dain’s coronation. She doesn’t understand how quickly everything can change.

Vivi glances toward Heather. “And then we go back to the mortal world. we shouldn’t have stayed so long.” But I see the longing in her face, too. She has never wanted to stay in Faerie before, but it was easy to persuade her to stay a little longer.

“I know,” I say. Heather avoids both our eyes.

when they go, the Bomb comes to me and takes my hands in hers. “whatever happens,” she tells me, “remember, I will be watching over you from the shadows.”

“I will never forget,” I say in return, thinking of the Roach, who sleeps on because of my father. Of the Ghost, who was his prisoner. Of

me, who nearly bled out in the snow. I have a lot to avenge.

Then she goes, too, and it is Cardan and me, alone for a moment. “Madoc says you will duel for love,” I say.

“whose?” he asks, frowning.

There is no banquet too abundant for a starving man.

I shake my head.

“It’s you I love,” he says. “I spent much of my life guarding my heart. I guarded it so well that I could behave as though I didn’t have one at all. Even now, it is a shabby, worm-eaten, and scabrous thing. But it is yours.” He walks to the door to the royal chambers, as though to end the conversation. “You probably guessed as much,” he says. “But just in case you didn’t.”

He opens the door to prevent me from responding. Abruptly, we are no longer alone. Fand and the rest of our guard stand ready in the hall, with the Living Council waiting impatiently beside them.

I can’t believe he said that and then just walked out, leaving me reeling. I am going to strangle him.

“The traitor and his company have entered the brugh,” Randalin says. “waiting on your pleasure.”

“How many?” Cardan asks.

“Twelve,” he says. “Madoc, Oriana, Grimsen, some of the Court of Teeth, and several of Madoc’s best generals.”

A small number and a mix of formidable warriors with courtiers. I can make no meaning of it, except the obvious. He intends both diplomacy and war.

As we walk through the halls, I glance over at Cardan. He gives me a preoccupied smile, as though his thoughts are on Madoc and the coming conflict.

You love him, too, I think. You’ve loved him since before you were a prisoner of the Undersea. You loved him when you agreed to marry him.

Once this is over, I will find the bravery to tell him.

And then we are ushered onto the dais, like players upon a stage about to begin a performance.

I look out at the rulers of Seelie and Unseelie Courts alike, at the wild Folk who are sworn to us, at the courtiers and performers and servants. My gaze snags on Oak, half-hidden high up on a rocky formation. My twin gives me a reassuring grin. Lord Roiben stands off to one side, his

demeanor forbidding. At the far end of the room, I see the crowd begin to part to allow Madoc and his company to come forward.

I flex my fingers, cold with nerves.

As he strides across the brugh, my father’s armor shines with fresh polish, but it is otherwise unremarkable—the armor of someone interested in the reliable rather than the new and impressive. The cloak that hangs from his shoulders is wool, embroidered with his moon sigil in silver and lined in red. Over it, the massive sword, slung so he can draw it in a single, fluid movement. And on his head, a familiar cap, stiff with dark, dried blood.

Looking at that cap, I know he has not come only to talk.

Behind him are Lady Nore and Lord Jarel from the Court of Teeth, with their leashed little Queen Suren by their side. And Madoc’s most trusted generals—Calidore, Brimstone, and Vavindra. But to either side of him are Grimsen and Oriana. Grimsen is dressed elaborately, in a jacket all of hinged pieces of gold. Oriana is as pale as ever, attired in a deep blue trimmed out in white fur, her only decoration a silver headpiece shining in her hair like ice.

“Lord Madoc,” Cardan says. “Traitor to the throne, murderer of my brother, what brings you here? Have you come to throw yourself on the mercy of the crown? Perhaps you hope the Queen of Elfhame will show leniency.”

Madoc barks out a laugh, his gaze going to me. “Daughter, every time I think you cannot rise any higher, you prove me wrong,” he says. “And I a fool to wonder if you were even still alive.”

“I am alive,” I say. “No thanks to you.”

I have some satisfaction in seeing the complete bafflement on Oriana’s face and then the shock that replaces it as she comes to see that my presence at the High King’s side is no elaborate joke. I am somehow wed to Cardan.

“This is your last chance to surrender,” I say. “Bend the knee, Father.”

He laughs again, shaking his head. “I have never surrendered in my life. In all the years I have battled, never have I given that to anyone. And I will not give it to you.”

“Then you will be remembered as a traitor, and when they make songs about you, those songs will forget all your valiant deeds in favor of this despicable one.”

“Ah, Jude,” he says. “Do you think I care about songs?”

“You have come to parlay, and you will not surrender,” Cardan says. “So speak. I cannot believe you brought so many troops to sit idle.”

Madoc puts his hand up onto the hilt of his sword. “I have come to challenge you for your crown.”

Cardan laughs. “This is the Blood Crown, forged for Mab, first of the Greenbriar line. You can’t wear it.”

“Forged by Grimsen,” says Madoc. “Here at my side. He will find a way for me to make it mine once I win. So will you hear my challenge?”

No, I want to say. Stop talPing. But this is the purpose of parlay. I can hardly call a halt to it without a reason.

“You have come all this way,” says Cardan. “And called so many Folk here to witness. How could I not?”

“when Queen Mab died,” Madoc says, drawing the sword from his back. It gleams with reflected candlelight. “The palace was built on her barrow. And while her remains are gone, her power lives on in the rocks and earth there. This sword was cooled in that earth, the hilt set with her stones. Grimsen says it can shake the firmament of the isles.”

Cardan glances toward the shadows, where the archers are positioned. “You were my guest until you drew your very fancy sword. Put it down and be my guest again.”

“Put it down?” says Madoc. “Very well.” He slams it into the floor of the brugh. A thunderous sound rocks the palace, a tremor that seems to go through the ground beneath us. The Folk scream. Grimsen cackles, clearly delighted with his own work.

A crack forms on the floor, starting where the blade punctured the ground, the fissure widening as it moves toward the dais, splitting the stone. A moment before it reaches the throne, I realize what’s about to happen and cover my mouth. Then the ancient throne of Elfhame cracks down the middle, its flowering branches turned into splinters, its seat obliterated. Sap leaks from the rupture like blood from a wound.

“I have come here to give that blade to you,” Madoc says over the screams.

Cardan looks at the destruction of the throne in horror. “why?”

“If you should lose the contest I propose, it will be yours to wield against me. we will have a proper duel, but your sword will be the

better by far. And if you win, it will be yours by right anyway, as will my surrender.”

Despite himself, Cardan looks intrigued. Dread gnaws at my gut. “High King Cardan, son of Eldred, great-grandson of Mab. You who

were born under an ill-favored star, whose mother left you to eat the crumbs off the royal table as though you were one of its hounds, you who are given to luxury and ease, whose father despised you, whose wife keeps you under her control—can you inspire any loyalty in your people?”

“Cardan—” I begin, then bite my tongue. Madoc has trapped me. If I speak and Cardan heeds me, it will seem to prove my father right.

“I am under no one’s control,” Cardan says. “And your treason began with planning my father’s death, so you can hardly care about his good opinion. Go back to your desolate mountains. The Folk here are my sworn subjects, and your insults are dull.”

Madoc smiles. “Yes, but do your sworn subjects love you? My army is loyal, High King Cardan, because I’ve earned their loyalty. Have you earned one single thing that you have? I have fought with those who follow me and bled with them. I have given my life to Elfhame. were I High King, I would give all those who followed me dominion over the world. Had I the Blood Crown on my head instead of this cap, I would bring victories undreamed. Let them choose between us, and whomsoever they choose, let him have the rule of Elfhame. Let him have the crown. If Elfhame loves you, I will yield. But how can anyone choose to be your subject if you never give them the opportunity to make any other choice? Let that be the manner of the contest between us. The hearts and minds of the Court. If you are too much the coward to duel me with blades, let that be our duel.”

Cardan gazes at the throne. Something in his expression is alive, something alight. “A king is not his crown.” His voice sounds distant, as though he’s speaking mostly to himself.

Madoc’s jaw moves. His body is tense, ready to fight. “There is something else. There is the matter of Queen Orlagh.”

“whom your assassin shot,” I say. A murmur goes through the crowd.

“She is your ally,” says Madoc, denying nothing. “Her daughter one of your boon companions in the palace.”

Cardan scowls.

“If you will not risk the Blood Crown, the arrowhead will burrow into her heart, and she will die. It will be as if you slew her, High King of Elfhame. And all because you believed that your own people would deny you.”

Do not agree to this, I want to scream, but if I do, Cardan might feel he has to accept Madoc’s ridiculous contest just to prove I don’t have power over him. I am furious, but I finally see why Madoc believes he can manipulate Cardan into accepting the contest. Too late, I see.

Cardan was not an easy child to love, and he’s only grown worse with time, Lady Asha told me. Eldred was wary of the prophecy and didn’t care for him. And being in disfavor with his father, from whom all power flowed, put him in disfavor with the rest of his siblings.

Being rejected by his family, how could becoming High King not feel like finally belonging? Like finally being embraced?

There is no banquet too abundant for a starving man.

And how could anyone not want proof that feeling was real?

would Elfhame choose Cardan to rule over them? I look out on the crowd. On Queen Annet, who might value Madoc’s experience and brutality. On Lord Roiben, given to violence. On the Alderking, Severin of Fairfold, who was exiled by Eldred and might not wish to follow Eldred’s son.

Cardan takes the crown from his head. The crowd gasps.

“what are you doing?” I whisper. But he doesn’t even glance at me.

It’s the crown he’s looking at.

The sword remains stuck deep in the ground. The brugh is quiet.

“A king is not his throne nor his crown,” he says. “You are right that neither loyalty nor love should be compelled. But rule of Elfhame ought not be won or lost in a wager, either, as though it were a week’s pay or a wineskin. I am the High King, and I do not forfeit that title to you, not for a sword or a show or my pride. It is worth more than any of those things.” Cardan looks at me and smiles. “Besides which, two rulers stand before you. And even had you cut me down, one would remain.”

My shoulders sag with relief, and I fix Madoc with a look of triumph. I see doubt in his face for the first time, the fear that he’s calculated wrong.

But Cardan is not done speaking. “You want the very thing you rail against—the Blood Crown. You want my subjects bound to you as

assuredly as they are now bound to me. You want it so much that risking the Blood Crown is the price you put on Queen Orlagh’s head.” Then he smiles. “when I was born, there was a prophecy that were I to rule, I would be the destruction of the crown and the ruination of the throne.”

Madoc’s gaze shifts from Cardan to me and then back to Cardan again. He’s thinking through his options. They’re not good, but he does still have a very big sword. My hand goes automatically to the hilt of Nightfell.

Cardan extends one long-fingered hand toward the throne of Elfhame and the great crack running along the ground. “Behold, half that has come to pass.” He laughs. “I never considered it was meant to be interpreted literally. And I never considered I would desire its fulfillment.”

I do not like where this is going.

“Queen Mab created this crown to keep her descendants in power,” Cardan says. “But vows should never be to a crown. They should be to a ruler. And they should be of your own free will. I am your king, and beside me stands my queen. But it is your choice whether or not to follow us. Your will shall be your own.”

And with his bare hands, he cracks the Blood Crown in two. It breaks like a child’s toy, as though in his hands it was never made of metal at all, brittle as a wishbone.

I think that I gasp, but it is possible that I scream. Many voices rise in something that is horror and joy commingled.

Madoc looks appalled. He came for that crown, and now it is nothing but a cracked piece of slag. But it is Grimsen’s face my gaze stops on. He is shaking his head violently back and forth. No no no no.

“Folk of Elfhame, will you accept me as your High King?” Cardan calls out.

They’re the ritual words of the coronation. I remember something like them said by Eldred in this very hall. And one by one, all around the brugh, I see the Folk bow their heads. The movement ripples like an exultant wave.

They have chosen him. They are giving him their fealty. we have won.

I look over at Cardan and see that his eyes have gone completely black.

“Nononononono!” Grimsen cries. “My work. My beautiful work. It was supposed to last forever.”

On the throne, the remaining flowers turn the same inky black as Cardan’s eyes. Then the black bleeds down his face. He turns to me, opening his mouth, but his jaw is changing. His whole body is changing

—elongating and ululating.

And I recall abruptly that Grimsen has cursed everything he has ever made.

When she came to me to forge the Blood Crown, she entrusted me with a great honor. And I cursed it to protect it for all time.

I want my work to endure just as Queen Mab wanted her line to endure.

The monstrous thing seems to have swallowed up everything of Cardan. His mouth opens wide and then jaw-crackingly wide as long fangs sprout. Scales shroud his skin. Dread has rooted me in place.

Screams fill the air. Some of the Court begin to run toward the doors. I draw Nightfell. The guard stare at Cardan in horror, weapons in their hands. I see Grima Mog racing toward the dais.

In the place where the High King was, there is a massive serpent, covered in black scales and curved fangs. A golden sheen runs down the coils of the enormous body. I look into his black eyes, hoping to see recognition there, but they are cold and empty.

“It will poison the land,” cries the smith. “No true love’s kiss will stop it. No riddle will fix it. Only death.”

“The King of Elfhame is no more,” says Madoc, grabbing for the hilt of his massive sword, intent on seizing victory from what had been almost certain defeat. “I mean to slay the serpent and take the throne.” “You forget yourself,” I shout, my voice carrying across the brugh.

The Folk stop running. The rulers of the low Courts stare up at me, along with the Council and the Folk of Elfhame. This is nothing like being Cardan’s seneschal. This is nothing like ruling beside him. This is horrible. They will never listen to me.

The serpent’s tongue flicks out, tasting the air. I am trembling, but I refuse to let the fear I feel show. “Elfhame has a queen, and she is before you. Guards, seize Madoc. Seize everyone in his party. They have broken the High Court’s hospitality most grievously. I want them imprisoned. I want them dead.”

Madoc laughs. “Do you, Jude? The crown is gone. why should they obey you when they could just as easily follow me?”

“Because I am the Queen of Elfhame, the true queen, chosen by the king and the land.” My voice cracks on that last part. “And you are nothing but a traitor.”

Do I sound convincing? I don’t know. Probably not.

Randalin steps up beside me. “You heard her,” he barks, surprising me. “Take them.”

And that, more than anything I said, seems to bring the knights back to their task. They move to surround Madoc’s company, swords drawn. Then the serpent moves faster than I could have expected. It slides from the dais into the crowd, scattering the Folk who run from it in fear. It looks as though it has become larger already. The golden sheen on its scales is more pronounced. And in the wake of its path, the earth cracks and crumbles, as though some essential part of it is being drawn

out.

The knights fall back, and Madoc draws his massive sword from the earth. The serpent slides toward him.

“Mother!” Oak screams, and takes off across the brugh toward her. Vivi attempts to grab him. Heather calls his name, but Oak’s hooves are already pelting across the floor. Oriana turns in horror as he hurtles toward her and into the path of the snake.

Oak stops short, reading the warning in her body language. But all he does is draw a child’s sword from a hilt at his side. The sword I insisted he learn through all those lazy afternoons in the mortal world. Holding it high, he puts himself between his mother and the serpent.

This is my fault. All my fault.

with a cry, I jump down from the dais and race toward my brother. Madoc swings on the serpent as it rears up. His sword hits its side,

glancing off its scales. It strikes back, knocking him down and then sliding over his body in its haste to chase its real prey: Grimsen.

The creature coils around the fleeing smith, fangs going into his back. A thin, reedy scream fills the air as Grimsen falls into a withering heap. In moments, he is a husk, as though the poison of the serpent’s fangs ate away his essence from within.

I wonder when he dreamed up such a curse, if he ever thought to be afraid for himself.

when I look up, I see that most of the hall has been cleared. The knights have fallen back. The Bomb’s archers have made themselves visible high on the walls, bowstrings held taut. Grima Mog has come to

stand beside me, her blade at the ready. Madoc is staggering to his feet, but the leg the serpent slid over doesn’t seem inclined to hold him up. I grab Oriana by the shoulder and shove her toward where Fand is standing. Then I get between Oak and the snake.

“Go with her,” I shout at him, pointing toward his mother. “Get her to safety.”

Oak looks up at me, his eyes wet with tears. His hands tremble on the sword, clutching it far too hard.

“You were very brave,” I tell him. “You just have to be brave a little longer.”

He gives me a slight nod, and with an agonized look back at Madoc, he races off after his mother.

The serpent turns, its tongue flickering toward me. The serpent, which was once Cardan.

“You want to be the Queen of Faerie, Jude?” Madoc shouts as he moves with a limping gait. “Then slay him. Slay the beast. Let’s see if you have the bravery to do what needs to be done.”

“Come, my lady,” Fand pleads, urging me toward an exit as the serpent moves back toward the dais. The serpent’s tongue flicks again, tasting the air, and I am gripped by fear and a horror so vast I am afraid I will be swallowed up by it.

when the serpent winds itself around the shattered remains of the throne, I let myself be led toward the doors, and once the rest of the Folk are through, I order them shut and barred behind us.

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