Chapter no 24

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

T‌he Bomb finds me there, stepping out of the shadows in a graceful movement. She isn’t wearing her mask.

“Jude?” she says.

I realize how much closer to the serpent I have crept. I sit on the dais, perhaps three feet from him. He has grown so used to me that he’s closed his golden eyes.

“Your sisters are worried,” she says, coming as close to us as she dares. The serpent’s head rises, tongue darting out to touch the air, and she goes very still.

“I’m fine,” I say. “I just needed to think.”

No true love’s Piss will stop it. No riddle will fix it. 0nly death.

She gives the serpent an evaluating look. “Does he know you?”

“I can’t tell,” I say. “He seems not to mind my being here. I’ve been telling him how he can’t hold me to my promises.”

The hardest thing—the impossible thing—is to get past the memory of Cardan telling me he loved me. He said those words, and I didn’t answer him. I thought there would be time. And I was happy—despite everything—I was happy, just before everything went so terribly wrong. we won. Everything was going to work out. And he loved me.

“There are a few things you need to know,” the Bomb says. “I believe Grima Mog gave you a report about Madoc’s movements.”

“She did,” I say.

“we caught a few courtiers speculating about assassinating the mortal queen. Their plans got blown up.” A small smile crosses her

face. “As did they.”

I don’t know if I should be happy about that or not. Right now it makes me feel tired.

“The Ghost has gathered information about the loyalties of the individual rulers,” she says. “we can go over all those. But the most interesting thing is that you have a message from your father. Madoc wants a guarantee that he and Lady Nore and Lord Jarel may come to the palace and treat with you.”

“They want to come here?” I climb down from the dais. The serpent’s gaze follows me. “why? Aren’t they satisfied with the results of their last parlay?”

“I know not,” she says, a brittleness in her voice that reminds me how much she hates the rulers of the Court of Teeth, and how deservedly. “But Madoc has asked to see you and your brother and sisters. As well as his wife.”

“Very well,” I say. “Let him come, along with Lady Nore and Lord Jarel. But let him know that he will bring no weapon into Elfhame. He does not come here as my guest. He has only my word that he will come to no harm, not the hospitality of my house.”

“And what is your word worth?” the Bomb asks, sounding hopeful.

“I guess we’ll find out.” At the door, I look back toward the serpent. Beneath where it rests, the ground has blackened to almost the color of its scales.



After several messages back and forth, it is determined that Madoc and his company will arrive at dusk. I have agreed to receive them on the palace grounds, having no interest in letting them inside again. Grima Mog brings a semicircle of knights to watch over us, with archers in the trees. The Bomb brings spies, who hide themselves in higher and lower places. Among their number is the Ghost, his ears sealed with soft wax.

My carved chair has been brought outside and is set on a new, higher platform. Cushions rest below it, for my brother and sisters—and Oriana, if she will deign to sit with us.

There are no banquet tables and no wine. The only concession we have made to their comfort is a rug over the muddy ground. Torches

blaze to either side of me, but that’s for my own poor mortal eyesight, not for them.

Overhead, storm clouds sweep by, crackling with lightning. Earlier, hailstones as large as apples were reported raining down on Insweal. weather like this is unknown in Elfhame. I can only assume that Cardan, in his cursed form, is cursing the weather as well.

I sit in the carved wooden chair and arrange my gown in what I hope is a regal way. I brush off dust from the hem.

“You missed a bit,” the Bomb says, pointing. “Your Majesty.”

She has taken up a place to the right of the platform. I shake off my skirts again, and she smothers a smile as my brother arrives with both of my sisters in tow. when the Bomb pulls on her face covering, she seems to recede entirely into the shadows.

The last time I saw Oak, his sword was drawn and terror was on his face. I am glad to replace that memory with this one: his rushing up to me, grinning.

“Jude!” he says, climbing up onto my lap, making short work of all the careful arranging of skirts. His horns butt against my shoulder. “I have been explaining skateboarding to Oriana, and she doesn’t think I should do it.”

I look out, expecting to see her, but there’s only Vivi and Taryn. Vivi is dressed in jeans and a brocade vest over a floofy white shirt, a compromise between mortal and immortal style. Taryn is dressed in the gown I saw in her closet, the one patterned with forest animals looking out from behind leaves. Oak has on a little coat of midnight blue. On his brow someone has set a golden diadem to remind us all that he may be the very last of the Greenbriar line.

“I need your help,” I tell Oak. “But it will be very hard and very annoying.”

“what do I have to do?” he asks, looking highly suspicious.

“You have to look like you’re paying attention, but stay quiet. No matter what I say. No matter what Dad says. No matter what happens.”

“That’s not helping,” he protests. “It would be a huge help,” I insist.

with a dramatic sigh, he slides off me and takes his sulky place on the cushions.

“where’s Heather?” I ask Vivi.

“In the library,” she says with a guilty look. I wonder if she thinks Heather ought to be back in the human world and it’s only Vivi’s selfishness that’s keeping her here, not realizing they are now both working toward the same goal. “She says that if this were a movie, someone would find a poem about cursed snakes and it would give us the clue we needed, so she’s gone off to find one. The archivists don’t know what to do with her.”

“She’s really adapting to Faerie,” I say. Vivi’s only reply is a tight, sorrowful smile.

Then Oriana arrives, escorted in by Grima Mog, who takes a position parallel and opposite the Bomb. Like me, Oriana still wears the gown she had on in the brugh. Looking at the setting sun, I realize that an entire day must have passed since then. I am not sure how long I sat with the serpent, only that I seem to have lost time without noticing. It feels like forever and no time at all since Cardan was put under the curse.

“They’re here,” Fand says, hurrying up the path to stand beside the Bomb. And behind her is the thunder of hooves. Madoc comes mounted on a stag, dressed not in his customary armor but in a doublet of deep blue velvet. when he dismounts, I notice he has a pronounced limp where the serpent slid over him.

Behind him comes an ice coach pulled by faerie horses as crystalline as if they were conjured from frozen waves. As the rulers of the Court of Teeth climb out, the coach and the horses melt away.

Lady Nore and Lord Jarel are in white furs, despite the air not being particularly cold. Behind them are a single servant, bearing a small chest etched in silver, and Queen Suren. Though she is their ruler, she wears only a simple white shift. A gold crown has been stitched to her forehead, and a thin gold chain that penetrates the skin of her wrist functions as her new leash, with a bar on one side to keep the chain from slipping free.

Fresh scars cover her face in the shape of the bridle she wore when last I saw her.

I try to keep my face impassive, but the horror of it is hard to ignore.

Madoc steps ahead of the others, smiling at us as though we were sitting for a family portrait that he was about to join.

Oak looks up and pales, seeing Queen Suren’s leash piercing her skin.

Then he looks at Madoc, as though expecting an explanation.

None is forthcoming.

“would you like cushions?” I ask Madoc’s little group. “I can have some brought.”

Lady Nore and Lord Jarel take in the gardens, the knights, the Bomb with her covered face, Grima Mog, and my family. Oak goes back to sulking, lying facedown on a pillow instead of sitting. I want to give him a shove with my foot for rudeness, but maybe it’s a good moment for him to be rude. I can’t let the Court of Teeth think they are of too great importance to us. As for Madoc, he knows us too well to be impressed.

“we will stand,” Lady Nore says, lip curling.

It’s hard to sit in a dignified way on a cushion, and it would require her lowering herself very far beneath me. Of course she refused my offer.

I think of Cardan and the way he wore his crown askew, the way he lounged on the throne. It gave him an air of unpredictability and reminded everyone that he was powerful enough to make the rules. I have resolved to try to emulate his example where I can, including with annoying seating.

“You are bold to come here,” I say.

“Of all people, you should appreciate a little boldness.” Madoc’s gaze goes to Vivi and Taryn and then back to me. “I mourned you. I truly believed you died.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t wet your cap in my blood,” I say. At my side, Grima Mog’s eyebrows rise.

“I cannot blame you for being angry,” he says. “But we have been angry at each other for too long, Jude. You’re not the fool I took you for, and for my part, I don’t want to hurt you. You’re the High Queen of Faerie. whatever you did to get there, I can only applaud it.”

He might not want to hurt me, but that doesn’t mean he won’t.

“She is the queen,” Taryn says. “The only reason she didn’t die out in the snow is that the land healed her.”

A murmur moves through the Folk around us. Lady Nore looks at me with open disgust. I note that neither she nor her husband has made a proper bow, nor used my title. How it must gall her to see me on even this approximation of a throne. How she must hate the very idea that I have a claim to the real one.

“It is the nature of the child to achieve what a parent can only dream,” says Madoc. Now he looks at Oriana, eyes narrowing. “But let us remember that much of this family disagreement came from my attempt to put Oak on the throne. I have always been as happy to rule through my children as to wear the crown myself.”

Anger flares up inside me, hot and bright. “And woe to those children if they will not be ruled by you.”

He makes a gesture of dismissal. “Let us think through your next moves, High Queen Jude. You and your army, led by your formidable new general, clash with mine. There is a great battle. Perhaps you win, and I retreat to the North to make new plans. Or perhaps I am dead.

“Then what? There is still a serpent king to contend with, one whose scales are harder than the hardest armor, whose poison seeps into the land. And you are still mortal. There is no more Blood Crown to keep the Folk of Elfhame tied to your rule, and even if there were, you could not wear it. Already Lady Asha is gathering a circle of courtiers and knights around herself, all of them telling her that as Cardan’s mother, she should be regent until his return. No, you will be fending off assassins and pretenders for your entire reign.”

I glance over at the Bomb, who did not mention Lady Asha in her list of things I needed to know. The Bomb gives a slight nod of acknowledgment.

It’s a bleak picture, and no part of it is untrue.

“So maybe Jude quits,” Vivi says, sitting upright on the cushions by sheer force of will. “Abdicates. whatever.”

“She won’t,” Madoc says. “You’ve only ever half-understood anything Jude was up to, perhaps because if you did, you couldn’t continue to act as though there are easy answers. She’s made herself a target to keep the target from being on her brother’s back.”

“Don’t lecture me,” Vivi returns. “This is all your fault. Oak’s being in danger. Cardan’s being cursed. Jude’s nearly dying.”

“I am here,” says Madoc. “To make it right.”

I study his face, recalling the way he told the person he thought was Taryn that if it pained her that she murdered her husband, then she could put the weight on him. Perhaps he sees what he’s doing now as something in the same line, but I cannot agree.

Lord Jarel takes a step forward. “That child at your feet, that’s the rightful heir of the Greenbriar line, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I say. “Oak will be High King one day.” Thankfully, this once, my brother doesn’t contradict me. Lady Nore nods. “You are mortal. You will not last long.”

I decide not to even argue. Here, in Faerie, mortals can remain young, but those years will come on us the moment we set foot in the human world. Even if I could avoid that fate, Madoc’s argument was persuasive. I will not have an easy time on the throne without Cardan. “That’s what mortal means,” I say with a sigh that I don’t have to fake. “we die. Think of us like shooting stars, brief but bright.”

“Poetic,” she says. “And fatalistic. Very well. You seem as though you can be reasonable. Madoc wishes us to make you an offer. we have the means to control your serpent husband.”

I feel the blood rush behind my ears. “Control him?”

“As you would any animal.” Lord Jarel gives me a smile that’s full of menace. “we have a magical bridle in our possession. Created by Grimsen himself to leash anything. In fact, it will fit itself to the creature being restrained. Now that Grimsen is no more, such an item is more valuable than ever.”

My gaze goes to Suren and her scars. Is that what she was wearing?

Did they cut it off her to give to me?

Lady Nore speaks, taking up her husband’s theme. “The straps will slowly sink into his skin, and Cardan will be forever yours.”

I am not sure what she quite means by that. “Mine? He’s under a curse.”

“And unlikely to ever be otherwise, if Grimsen’s words are to be believed,” she goes on. “But were he somehow to be returned to his former state, he would still remain eternally in your power. Isn’t that delicious?”

I bite down on my tongue to avoid reacting. “That’s an extraordinary offer,” I say, turning from her to Madoc. “By which I mean it sounds like a trick.”

“Yes,” he says. “I can see that. But we will each get what we want. Jude, you will be the High Queen for as long as you like. with the serpent bound, you can rule unopposed. Taryn, you will be the sister to the queen and back in the good graces of the Court. No one can keep you from claiming Locke’s land and estates for yourself. Perhaps your sister will even throw in a title.”

“You never know,” I say, which is dangerously close to being drawn in to the picture he’s painting.

“Vivienne, you shall be able to return to the mortal world and have all the fun you can conjure, without the intrusion of family. And Oak can live with his mother again.” He looks at me with the intensity of battle in his eyes. “we will do away with the Living Council, and I will take their place. I will guide your hand, Jude.”

I look over at the Court of Teeth. “And what will they get?”

Lord Jarel smiles. “Madoc has agreed to marry your brother, Oak, to our little queen, so that when he ascends the throne, his bride will ascend with him.”

“Jude …?” Oak asks nervously. Oriana takes his hand and squeezes it tightly.

“You can’t be serious,” Vivi says. “Oak shouldn’t have anything to do with these people or their creepy daughter.”

Lord Jarel fixes her with a look of furious contempt. “You, Madoc’s only trueborn child, are the person of least consequence here. what a disappointment you must be.”

Vivi rolls her eyes.

My gaze goes to the little queen, studying her pale face and her oddly blank eyes. Although it is her fate we are discussing, she does not look very interested. Nor does she look as though she has been well treated. I can’t imagine tying her to my brother.

“Put the question of Oak’s marriage aside for a moment,” Madoc says. “Do you want the bridle, Jude?”

It is a monstrous thing, the idea of tying Cardan to me in eternal obedience. what I want is him back, him standing beside me, him laughing at all this. I would settle for even his worst self, his cruelest trickster self, if only he could be here.

I think of Cardan’s words in the brugh, before he destroyed the crown: neither loyalty nor love should be compelled.

He was right. Of course he was right. And yet, I want the bridle. I want it desperately. I can imagine myself on a rebuilt throne with the serpent torpid beside me, a symbol of my power and a reminder of my love. He would never be entirely lost to me.

It is a horrific image and just as horrifically compelling.

I would have hope, at least. And what is the alternative? Fighting a battle and sacrificing the lives of my people? Hunting down the serpent

and giving up any chance of having Cardan back? For what? I am tired of fighting.

Let Madoc rule through me. Let him try, at least. “Swear to me that the bridle does nothing else,” I say.

“Nothing,” says Lady Nore. “Only allows you to control the creature it’s used on—if you say the words of command. And once you’ve agreed to our terms, we will tell them to you.”

Lord Jarel waves forward his servant, who removes the bridle from the chest, throwing it down in a heap in front of me. It shines, golden. A bunch of straps, finely wrought, and a possible future that doesn’t involve losing what I have left.

“I wonder,” I say, considering it, “with such a powerful object in your possession, why you didn’t use it yourselves.”

He doesn’t answer for a moment that drags on just a little too long. “Ah,” I say, recalling the fresh scratches along the serpent’s scales. If I inspect that bridle, I bet there’s still drying blood on it from knights of the Court of Teeth—perhaps volunteers from Madoc’s army as well. “You couldn’t bridle him, could you? How many did you lose?”

Lord Jarel looks ill-pleased with me.

Madoc answers. “A battalion—and part of the Crooked Forest caught on fire. The creature wouldn’t allow us to approach it. He’s fast and deadly, and his poison seems inexhaustible.”

“But in the hall,” says Lady Nore, “he knew Grimsen was his enemy. we believe you can lure him. Like maidens with unicorns of old. You can bridle him. And if you die trying, Oak comes to his throne early with our queen beside him.”

“Pragmatic,” I say.

“Consider taking the deal,” Grima Mog says. I turn to her, and she shrugs. “Madoc’s right. It will be hard to hold the throne otherwise. I have no doubt you’ll be able to bridle the serpent, nor that it will make for a weapon the likes of which no army in all of Faerie has seen before. That’s power, girl.”

“Or we could murder them right now. Take the bridle as our spoils,” the Bomb says, removing the netting that covers her face. “They’re already traitors. They’re unarmed. And knowing them, they intend to trick you. You admitted as much yourself, Jude.”

“Liliver?” says Lady Nore. It’s odd to hear her called by something other than her code name, but the Bomb was held in the Court of Teeth

before she became a spy. They would only know to call her by what she went by then.

“You remember me,” the Bomb says. “Know that I also remember you.”

“You may have the bridle, but you do not yet know how to work it,” Lord Jarel says. “You cannot bind the serpent without us.”

“I think I could get it out of her,” the Bomb says. “I’d enjoy trying.” “Are you going to allow her to speak to us that way?” Lady Nore

demands of Madoc, as though he can do anything.

“Liliver wasn’t speaking to you at all,” I say, mild-voiced. “She was speaking to me. And since she’s my advisor, I would be foolish not to give her words careful consideration.”

Madoc barks out a laugh. “Oh, come now, if you’ve met Lord Jarel and Lady Nore, you know they are spiteful enough to deny you, no matter what torment your spy invented. And you want that bridle, daughter.”

The Court of Teeth backed Madoc to get closer to the throne. Now they see a path to ruling Elfhame themselves, through Oak. As soon as Oak and Suren are married, I will have a target on my back. And so will Madoc.

But I will also have the serpent, bound to me.

A serpent who is a corruption on the land itself.

“Show me you are acting in good faith,” I say. “Cardan fulfilled what you asked of him in the matter of Orlagh of the Undersea. Release her from whatever doom you hold over her. She and her daughter hate me, so you cannot worry about their rushing to my aid.”

“I imagined you hated them as well,” says Madoc, frowning.

“I want to see Cardan’s sacrifice mean what he wanted it to mean,” I say. “And I want to know that you aren’t weaseling out of every bargain you can.”

He nods. “Very well. It is done.”

I take a deep breath. “I will not commit Oak to anything, but if you want to call a halt to the war, tell me how the bridle works, and let us work toward peace.”

Lord Jarel steps up onto the platform, causing the guards to move in front of him, weapons keeping him from me.

“would you prefer I say it aloud, in front of everyone?” he asks, annoyed.

I wave away the guards, and he leans down to whisper the answer in my ear. “Take three hairs from your own head and knot them around the bridle. You will be bound together.” Then he steps back. “Now, do you agree to our compact?”

I look at the three of them. “when the High King is bridled and tame, then I will give you everything you asked for, everything that’s within my power to give. But you will have nothing before that.”

“Then this is what you must do, Jude,” Madoc tells me. “Tomorrow, hold a feast for the low Courts and invite us. Explain that we have put aside our differences in the face of a larger threat and that we gave you the means to capture the serpent king.

“Our armies will gather on the rocks of Insweal, but not to fight. You will take the bridle and lure the serpent to you. Once you put it on him, issue the first command. He will show himself tame, and everyone will cheer for you. It will cement your power and give you an excuse to reward us. And reward us you shall.”

Already, he seeks to rule through me. “It will be nice to have a queen who can tell all the lies you cannot, won’t it?” I say.

Madoc smiles at me with no malice in it. “It will be good to be a family again.”

Nothing about this feels right, except for the smooth leather of the bridle in my hands.



On my way out of the palace, I pass by the throne room, but when I let myself inside, there is no sign of the serpent except for papery folds of torn golden skin.

I walk through the night to the rocky beach. There, I kneel on the stone and toss a wadded-up scrap of paper into the waves.

If you ever loved him, I wrote, help me.

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