Chapter no 23

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

I‌n the hall outside the brugh, everyone is shouting at once. The councilors are yelling at one another. Generals and knights are trying to secure who is supposed to go where. Someone is weeping. Courtiers are clutching at one another’s hands, trying to make sense of what they saw. Even in a land of riddles and curses, where an isle can be called up from the sea, magic of this magnitude is rare.

My heart beats fast and hard, drowning out everything else. The Folk are asking me questions, but they seem very far away. My thoughts are filled with the image of Cardan’s eyes going black, with the sound of his voice.

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. Kven now, it is a shabby, worm-eaten, and scabrous thing. But it is yours.

“My lady,” says Grima Mog, pressing a hand against my back. “My lady, come with me.”

At her touch, the present floods back in, loud and horrible. I am surprised to see the stout cannibal redcap in front of me. She grabs hold of my arm and hauls me into a stateroom.

“Get ahold of yourself,” she growls.

Knees weak, I slide to the floor, one hand pressing against my chest, as though I am trying to keep my heart from beating through the cage of my ribs.

My dress is too heavy. I can’t breathe. I don’t know what to do.

Someone is banging on the door, and I know I need to get up. I need to make a plan. I need to answer their questions. I need to fix this, but I can’t.

I can’t.

I can’t even think.

“I am going to stand,” I promise Grima Mog, who is probably a little alarmed. If I were her, looking at me and realizing I was in charge, I’d be alarmed, too. “I am going to be okay in a minute.”

“I know you are,” she says.

But how can I when I keep seeing the black shape of the snake moving through the brugh, keep seeing its dead eyes and curving fangs?

I reach for the table and use it to push me to my feet. “I need to find the Royal Astrologer.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Grima Mog. “You’re the queen. If you need Lord Baphen, then he can come to you. Right now, you’re standing between any one of these low Court denizens and being the ruler of Elfhame. It won’t be only Madoc who wants to take over now. Anyone might decide that killing you would be a good way to make their case for being in charge. You need to keep your boot on their throats.”

My head is swimming. I need to get it together. “You’re right,” I say. “I need a new Grand General. will you accept the position?”

Grima Mog’s surprise is obvious. “Me? But what of Yorn?”

“He doesn’t have the experience,” I say. “And I don’t like him.” “I tried to kill you,” she reminds me.

“You’ve described pretty much every important relationship in my life,” I return, taking slow, shallow breaths. “I like you fine.”

That makes her grin toothily. “Then I ought to get to work.” “Ascertain where the serpent is at all times,” I say. “I want someone

to watch over it, and I want to know immediately if it moves. Maybe we can keep it trapped in the brugh. The walls are thick, the doors are heavy, and the floor is earth. And I want you to send me the Bomb. Fand. My sister Taryn. And a runner who can report directly to you.”

Fand turns out to be just outside the door. I give her a very short list of people to let inside.

Once Grima Mog is gone, I allow myself another moment of helpless misery. Then I force myself to pace the floor and think through what’s

ahead of me. Madoc’s army is still anchored off the isles. I must discover what troops I have left and whether it’s enough to make him wary of an outright invasion.

Cardan is gone. My mind comes to a stop after that, and I have to force myself to think again. Until I speak with Baphen, I refuse to accept that Grimsen’s words have no answer. There has to be a loophole. There has to be a trick. There has to be a way to break the curse—a way Cardan can survive.

And then there are the Folk who must be convinced that I am the legitimate Queen of Faerie.

By the time the Bomb comes into the room, face covered and in her long, hooded cloak, I am composed.

Nonetheless, when we look at each other, she comes immediately over and puts her arms around me. I think of the Roach and of all the curses that cannot be broken, and for a moment, I hug her tight.

“I need to know who is still loyal to me,” I tell her, letting go and returning to my pacing. “who is throwing in their lot with Madoc and who has decided to play for themselves.”

She nods. “I will find out.”

“And if one of your spies overhears plans for my assassination, they do not need to bring me word. Nor do I care how vague the plot or how uncommitted the players. I just want them all dead.” Perhaps that is not how I ought to handle things, but Cardan is not here to stay my hand. I do not have the luxury of time or of mercy.

“It will be done,” she says. “Expect me with news tonight.”

when she goes out, Taryn comes in. She looks at me as though she’s half-expecting an enormous serpent to be in here, too.

“How’s Oak?” I ask.

“with Oriana,” she says. “who isn’t sure if she’s a prisoner or not.” “She showed me hospitality in the North, and I aim to return the

favor.” Now that shock is receding, I find that I am angry—at Madoc, at Oriana, at the whole of Elfhame. But that is a distraction, too. “I need your help.”

“Mine?” Taryn asks, surprised.

“You chose a wardrobe for me when I was seneschal, to make me seem the part. I saw Locke’s estate and how changed it was. Can you put together a throne room for me? And maybe find clothing from

somewhere for the next few days. I don’t care where it comes from, so long as it makes me appear to be the Queen of Faerie.”

Taryn takes a big breath. “Okay. I’ve got this. I’ll make you look good.”

“I’m going to have to look really good,” I say.

At that, she gives me an actual smile. “I don’t understand how you do it,” she says. “I don’t understand how you can be so calm.”

I’m not sure what to say. I don’t feel calm at all. I am a maelstrom of emotions. All I want to do is scream.

There’s another knock. Fand opens the door. “Your pardon,” she says. “But Lord Baphen is here, and you said you wanted to see him immediately.”

“I’ll find a better place for you to receive people,” Taryn assures me, slipping past.

“The Council wants an audience, too,” Fand says. “They’d like to accompany Lord Baphen. They claim there’s nothing he knows that they ought not hear.”

“No,” I say. “Just him.”

A few moments later, Baphen enters. He is wearing a long blue robe, a shade lighter than his navy hair. A bronze cap sits atop his head. The Royal Astrologer was one of the few members of the Council that I liked and who I thought might like me, but right now, I regard him with dread.

“There really is nothing that—” he begins.

I cut him off. “I want to know everything about the prophecy you made when Cardan was born. I want you to tell me it exactly.”

He gives me a look of slight surprise. On the Council, as the High King’s seneschal, I was deferential. And as High Queen, I was in too much shock to make any shows of authority.

Lord Baphen grimaces. “Giving the High King unfortunate news is never a pleasure. But it was Lady Asha who frightened me. She gave me such a look of hatred that I felt it to the tips of my ears. I think she believed I exaggerated somehow, to advance my own plots.”

“It seems clear now that you did not,” I say, voice dry. “Tell it to me.” He clears his throat. “There are two parts. He will be the destruction of the crown and the ruination of the throne. 0nly out of his spilled blood can a

great ruler rise.”

The second part is worse than the first. For a moment, the words just ring in my head.

“Did you give the prophecy to Prince Cardan?” I ask. “Does Madoc know it?”

“The High King may have been told by his mother,” Lord Baphen says. “I assumed—I thought Prince Cardan would never come to power. And then when he did, well, I supposed he would become a bad High King and be slain. I thought it was an unambiguous fate. As for Madoc, I do not know if he ever heard any part of it.”

“Is there a way to break the curse?” I ask in unsteady tones. “Before he died, Grimsen said: No true love’s Piss will stop it. No riddle will fix it. 0nly death. But that cannot be true. I thought the prophecy around his birth would provide an answer, but …” I cannot finish the sentence. There is an answer in it, but it’s one I don’t want to hear.

“If there is a way to reverse the, uh … transformation,” Baphen begins, “I do not know it.”

I clasp my hands together, sinking my nails into the skin, panic flooding me in a dizzy rush. “And there’s nothing else the stars foretold? No other detail you’re leaving out?”

“I am afraid not,” he says.

“Can you look at your star charts again?” I ask. “Go back to them and see if there’s something you overlooked the first time. Look at the sky, and see if there’s some new answer.”

He nods. “If that’s what you wish, Your Majesty.” His tone suggests that he’s agreed to many equally useless commands on the behalf of previous rulers.

I don’t care that I am unreasonable. “Yes. Do it.” “will you speak with the Council first?” he asks.

Even a short delay in Baphen’s attempting to find a solution sets my teeth on edge, but if I wish to be accepted as the rightful queen, I need the support of the Living Council. I cannot delay them forever.

Is this what it is to rule? To be far from the action, stuck on a throne or in a series of well-appointed rooms, reliant on information brought to you by others? Madoc would hate this.

“I will,” I say.

At the door, Fand tells me a room is ready for me to move to. I am impressed by the swiftness with which Taryn has arranged things.

“Is there anything else?” I ask.

“A runner came from Grima Mog,” she says. “The king—I mean, the serpent—is no longer in the throne room. It seems to have gotten out through the crack in the earth made by Madoc’s blade. And—and I am not sure what to make of this, but it’s snowing. Inside the brugh.”

Cold dread races through me. My hand goes to the hilt of Nightfell. I want to ride out. I want to find it, but if I do—what then? The answer is more than I can bear. I close my eyes against it. when I open them, I feel as though I am spinning. Then I ask to be conducted to my new throne room.

Taryn stands at the entrance, waiting to escort me inside. She’s chosen an enormous parlor and stripped it of its furniture. A large, carved wooden chair sits on a rug-covered platform in the echoing space. Candles glow from the floor, and I can see how the flickering shadows will help me appear intimidating—perhaps even play down my mortality.

Two of Cardan’s old guard stand to either side of the wooden chair, and a small moth-winged page kneels on one of the rugs.

“Not bad,” I tell my sister.

Taryn grins. “Get up there. I want to see the whole picture.”

I sit in the chair, my back straight, and look out at the dancing flames. Taryn gives me a very mortal thumbs-up.

“Okay,” I say. “Then I’m ready for the Living Council.”

Fand nods and goes out to fetch them. As the door shuts, I see she and Taryn discussing something. But then I have to turn my attention to Randalin and the rest of the councilors, who are grim-faced as they enter the room.

You have only seen the least of what I can do, I think at them, trying to believe it myself.

“Your Majesty,” Randalin says, but in such a way that it sounds a little like a question. He supported me in the brugh, but I am not sure how long that will last.

“I’ve appointed Grima Mog to be the Grand General,” I tell them. “She cannot come and present herself at the moment, but we should have a report from her soon.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” says Nihuar, pressing together her thin green lips, her mantis-like body shifting with obvious distress. “Perhaps we ought to wait for the High King to be restored before we come to any decision about such important matters.”

“Yes,” says Randalin eagerly, looking at me as though expecting some answer about how we’ll do that.

“Slithery snake king,” says Fala, dressed in lavender motley. “Rules over a Court of nice mice.”

I remember the Bomb’s words and do not flinch, nor do I attempt to argue. I wait, and my silence unnerves them into silence themselves. Even Fala goes quiet.

“Lord Baphen,” I say quellingly, “does not yet have an answer to how the High King may be restored.”

The others turn to him.

0nly out of his spilled blood can a great ruler rise.

Baphen nods briefly in assent. “I do not, nor am I sure such a thing is possible.”

Nihuar appears astonished. Even Mikkel seems taken aback by that news.

Randalin glares at me with accusation. As though everything is over and we’ve lost.

There is a way, I want to insist. There is a way; I just don’t Pnow it yet.

“I’ve come to make my report to the queen,” comes a voice from the doorway. Grima Mog stands there.

She strides past the Council members with a brief nod. They eye her speculatively.

“we would all hear what you know,” I say to murmurs of reluctant approval.

“Very well. we received intelligence that Madoc intends to attack at dawn the day after next. He hopes to catch us unprepared, especially since a few more Courts have flown to his banner. But our real problem is how many Folk plan to sit out the battle and see which way the wind blows.”

“Are you sure this information is accurate?” Randalin asks suspiciously. “How did you obtain it?”

Grima Mog nods toward me. “with the help of her spies.”

Her spies?” Baphen repeats. I can see his putting together some of the information I had in the past and coming to new conclusions about how I got it. I feel a jolt of satisfaction at the thought that I no longer have to pretend to be entirely without my own resources.

“Do we have enough of our own army to push him back?” I ask Grima Mog.

“we are in no way assured of victory,” she says diplomatically. “But he cannot yet overwhelm us.”

That’s a long way from where we were a day ago. But it’s better than nothing.

“And there is a belief,” Grima Mog says. “A belief that has grown swiftly—that the person to rule Elfhame is the one who will slay the serpent. That spilling Greenbriar blood is as good as having it in your veins.”

“A very Unseelie belief,” Mikkel says. I wonder if he agrees with it. I wonder if that’s what he expects from me.

“The king had a pretty head,” says Fala. “But can he do without it?” “where is he?” I ask. “where is the High King?”

“The serpent was spotted on the shores of Insear. A knight from the Court of Needles tried his luck against the creature. we found what was left of the knight’s body an hour ago and tracked the creature’s movements from there. It leaves marks where it goes, black lines scorching the earth. The difficulty is that those lines spread, blurring the trail and poisoning the land. Still, we followed the serpent back to the palace. It seems to have taken the brugh for its den.”

“The king is tied to the land,” says Baphen. “Cursing the king means cursing the land itself. My queen, there may be only one way to heal—” “Enough,” I say to Baphen and Randalin and the rest of the Council,

startling the guards. I stand. “we are done with this discussion.”

“But you must—” begins Randalin, then he seems to see something in my face and goes quiet.

“we’re meant to advise you,” says Nihuar in her syrupy voice. “we are thought to be very wise.”

“Are you?” I ask, and the voice that comes out is honeyed malice, the exact tone Cardan would have used. It spills out of me as though I am no longer in control of my mouth. “Because wisdom ought to urge you not to court my displeasure. Perhaps a stay in the Tower of Forgetting will recall you to your place.”

They all become very quiet.

I had imagined myself different from Madoc, but already, given the chance, I am becoming a tyrant, threatening in place of convincing. Unstable instead of steadying.

I am suited to the shadows, to the art of knives and bloodshed and coups, to poisoned words and poisoned cups. I never expected to rise so

high as the throne. And I fear that I am utterly unsuited for the task.



It feels more like compulsion than choice as my fingers unlatch the heavy bolts of the brugh doors.

Beside me, Fand tries to dissuade me, not for the first time. “Let us at least—”

“Remain here,” I tell her. “Do not follow me.”

“My lady,” she says, which is not exactly agreement but will have to do.

I slip inside the large chamber and let the cloak fall from my shoulders.

The serpent is there, coiled around the ruined throne. It has grown in size. The width of its body is such that it could swallow a horse whole with a mere stretch of its fanged jaws. There are yet some torches lit among the spilled food and turned-over tables, illuminating its black scales. Something of the golden sheen has dulled. I can’t tell if it’s illness or some further transformation. Fresh-looking scratches run along one side of its body, as though from a sword or spear. Out of the crack in the floor of the brugh, steam floats gently into the chamber, carrying the smell of hot stone.

“Cardan?” I ask, taking a few soft steps toward the dais.

The serpent’s great head swings toward me. Its coils slide, unwinding itself to hunt. I stop, and it does not come for me, although its head moves sinuously back and forth, alert to both threat and opportunity.

I force myself to keep walking, one step after another. The serpent’s golden eyes follow me, the only part of it—save for its temper—that seems like Cardan at all.

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.

I think of the stitches in my side and the white flowers pushing up through the snow. I concentrate on that memory and try to draw on the power of the land. He’s a descendant of Mab and the rightful king. I am his wife. I healed myself. Surely I can heal him.

“Please,” I say to the dirt floor of the brugh, to the earth itself. “I will do whatever you want. I will give up the crown. I will make any

bargain. Just please fix him. Help me break the curse.”

I concentrate and concentrate, but the magic doesn’t come.

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