Chapter no 25

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

I ‌lie on my back on the rug before the fire in my old rooms. Taryn sits next to me, picking at a roasted chicken she got from the palace kitchen. A whole tray of food is spread out on the floor—cheese and bread, currants and gooseberries, pomegranates and damson plums, along with a pitcher of thick cream. Vivi and Heather rest on the other side, their legs tangled together and hands clasped. Oak is lining up berries and then bowling them over with plums, something I would have once objected to but am not about to now.

“It’s better than fighting, right?” Taryn says, taking a steaming kettle off the hob and pouring water into a pot. She adds leaves, and the scent of mint and elderflower fills the air. “A truce. An unlikely truce.”

None of us answers, mulling over the question. I promised Madoc nothing concrete, but I have no doubt that at the banquet tonight, he intends to begin pulling authority toward himself. A trickle that swiftly becomes a flood, until I am only a figurehead with no real power. The temptation of this line of attack is that one can always convince oneself that that fate is avoidable, that one can reverse any losses, that one can outmaneuver him.

“what was wrong with that girl?” Oak asks. “Queen Suren.”

“They’re not particularly nice, the Court of Teeth,” I tell him, sitting up to accept a cup from Taryn. Despite going so long without sleep, I am not tired. Nor am I hungry, though I have made myself eat. I do not know what I am.

Vivi snorts. “I guess you could say that. You could also call a volcano ‘warm.’”

Oak frowns. “Are we going to help her?”

“If you decide to marry her, we could demand that the girl live here until you’re older,” I say. “And if she did, we’d keep her unfettered. I guess that would be a boon to her. But I still don’t think you should do it.”

“I don’t want to marry her—or anyone,” Oak says. “And I don’t want to be High King. why can’t we just help her?”

The tea is too hot. The first sip burns my tongue.

“It’s not easy to help a queen,” Taryn says. “They’re not supposed to need helping.”

we lapse into silence.

“So will you take over Locke’s estate?” Vivi asks, turning toward my twin. “You don’t have to. You don’t have to have his baby, either.”

Taryn takes a gooseberry and rolls the pale citrine fruit between her fingers. “what do you mean?”

“I know that in Faerie, children are rare and precious and all that, but in the mortal world, there’s such a thing as abortion,” Vivi says. “And even here, there are changelings.”

“And adoption,” Heather puts in. “It’s your decision. No one would judge you.”

“If they did, I could cut off their hands,” I volunteer.

“I want the child,” Taryn says. “Not that I am not scared, but I’m also kind of excited. Oak, you’re not going to be the youngest kid anymore.”

“Good,” he says, rolling his bruised plum toward the cream jar. Vivi intercepts it and takes a bite.

“Hey!” he says, but she only giggles mischievously.

“Did you find anything in the library?” I ask Heather, and try to pretend that my voice doesn’t quaver a little. I know she didn’t. If she had, she would have told me. And yet I ask anyway.

She yawns. “There were some wild stories. Not helpful, but wild. One was about a king of serpents who commands all the snakes in the world. Another about a serpent who puts two faerie princesses under a curse so they’re snakes—but only sometimes.

“And then there was this one about wanting a baby,” she says with a glance at Taryn. “A gardener’s wife couldn’t get pregnant. One day, she spots a cute green snake in her garden and gets all weird about how

even snakes have kids but she doesn’t. The snake hears her and offers to be her son.”

I raise my eyebrows. Oak laughs.

“He’s an okay son, though,” Heather says. “They make him a hole in the corner of their house, and he lives there. They feed him the same dinners they eat. It’s all good until he gets big and decides he wants to marry a princess. And not like a viper princess or an anaconda princess, either. The snake wants to marry the human princess of the place where they live.”

“How’s that going to work?” Taryn asks.

Heather grins. “Dad goes to the king and makes the proposal on behalf of his snake kiddo. The king isn’t into it, and so, in the manner of all fairy-tale people, instead of just refusing, he asks the snake to do three impossible things: first, turn all the fruit in the orchard to gems, then turn the floors of the palace to silver, and last, turn the walls of the palace to gold. Each time the dad reports back with one of these quests, the snake tells him what to do. First, Dad has to plant pits, which make jasper and jade fruit bloom overnight. Then he has to rub the floors of the palace with a discarded snakeskin to make them silver. Last, he has to rub the walls of the palace with venom, which turns them to gold.”

“The dad is the one putting in all the effort,” I murmur. It’s so warm by the fire.

“He’s kind of a helicopter parent.” Heather’s voice seems to come from very far away. “Anyway, finally, in despair, the king admits to his daughter that he basically sold her to a snake and that she has to go through with the marriage. So she does, but when they’re alone, the snake takes off its skin and reveals itself as a banging hot guy. The princess is thrilled, but the king bursts into their bedroom and burns the skin, believing he’s saving her life.

“The snake guy gives a great howl of despair and turns into a dove, flying away. The princess freaks out and weeps like crazy, then decides she’s going to find him. Along the way, because this is a fairy tale and literally nothing makes sense, the princess meets a gossipy fox, who tells her that the birds are talking smack about a prince who was under the curse of an ogress and could not be cured without the blood of a bunch of birds—and also the blood of a fox. So you can pretty much figure out the rest. Poor fox, right?”

“Cold,” Vivi says. “That fox was helping.”

And that’s the last I hear before I fall asleep to the sound of friendly voices talking over one another.



I wake to the dying embers of the fire, with a blanket over me.

Sleep has worked its strange magic, making the horror of the last two days recede enough for me to think a little better.

I see Taryn on the couch, wrapped in a blanket. I walk through the silent rooms and find Heather and Vivi in my bed. Oak isn’t there, and I suspect that he’s with Oriana.

I leave, finding a knight waiting for me. I recognize him as a member of Cardan’s royal guard.

“Your Majesty,” he says, hand to his heart. “Fand is resting. She asked me to watch over you until she returned.”

I feel guilty not to have thought of whether Fand was working too long or too hard. Of course I need more than a single knight. “what shall I call you?”

“Artegowl, Your Majesty.”

“where are the rest of the High King’s guard?” I ask.

He sighs. “Grima Mog has put us in charge of tracking the serpent’s movements.”

what a strange and sorrowful change from their previous mission, to keep Cardan safe. But I do not know if Artegowl would welcome my thoughts, nor if it is appropriate for me to give them. I leave him outside the doors to the royal chambers.

Inside, I am startled to find the Bomb sitting on the couch, turning a snow globe over in her hands. It has a cat inside and the words CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR PROMOTION—the gift Vivi brought for Cardan after his coronation. I didn’t realize he kept it. As I watch the glittering white crystals swirl, I recall the report of snow falling inside the brugh.

The Bomb looks up at me, her shoulders slumped. The despair in her face mirrors my own.

“Probably I shouldn’t have come,” she says, which isn’t like her at all. “what’s wrong?” I ask, coming fully inside the room.

“when Madoc came to make you his offer, I heard what Taryn said about you.” She waits for me to understand, but I don’t.

I shake my head.

“That the land healed you.” She looks as though she half-expects me to deny it. I wonder if she’s thinking about the stitches she removed in this room or how I survived a fall from the rafters. “I thought that maybe … you could use that power to wake the Roach.”

when I joined the Court of Shadows, I knew nothing of spying. The Bomb has seen me fail before. Still, this failure is hard to admit. “I tried to break the curse on Cardan, but I couldn’t. whatever I did, I don’t know how I did it or if I can do it again.”

“when I saw Lord Jarel and Lady Nore again, I couldn’t help remembering how much I owe the Roach,” the Bomb says. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have survived them. Even aside from how much I love him, I owe him. I have to make him better. If there’s anything you can do—”

I think about the flowers blooming up out of the snow. In that moment, I was magic.

I think about hope.

“I’ll try,” I say, stopping her. “If I can help the Roach, of course I want to. Of course I’ll try. Let’s go. Let’s go now.”

“Now?” the Bomb says, rising. “No, you came back to your chambers to sleep.”

“Even if the truce with Madoc and the Court of Teeth goes a lot better than I suspect it will, it’s possible that the serpent won’t allow me to bridle him,” I say. “I might not survive much longer. Better to do it as soon as possible.”

The Bomb puts her hand lightly on my arm. “Thank you,” she says, the human words awkward in her mouth.

“Don’t thank me yet,” I say.

“Perhaps a gift instead?” From her pocket, she pulls out a mask of black netting to match her own.

I change into black clothes and throw a heavy cloak over my shoulders. Then I don the mask, and we go together out the secret passage. I am surprised to find it has been modified since the last time I went through it, connected to the rest of the passageways through the walls of the palace. we go down through the wine cellar and into the new Court of Shadows. It’s much larger than the old rooms and much better appointed. It’s clear that Cardan financed this—or that they robbed the treasury behind his back. There is a kitchen area, full of

crockery and with a fireplace large enough to cook a smallish pony in. we pass training rooms and costume rooms and a strategy room to rival the one belonging to the Grand General. I spot a few spies, some I know and some I do not.

The Ghost looks up from a table where he’s sitting, laying out cards in one of the back rooms, sandy hair hanging over his eyes. He looks at me with suspicion. I roll up my mask.

“Jude,” he says with relief. “You came.”

I don’t want to give either of them false hope. “I don’t know if I can do anything, but I’d like to see him.”

“This way,” the Ghost says, rising and leading me to a little room hung with glowing glass orbs. The Roach lies on a bed. I am alarmed by the change in him.

His skin looks sallow, no longer the rich deep green of ponds, and there’s a disturbing waxiness to it. He moves in sleep, then cries out and opens his eyes. They are unfocused, bloodshot.

I catch my breath, but a moment later, he has succumbed to dreams again.

“I thought he was sleeping,” I say, horrified. I imagined the fairy-tale sleep of Snow white, imagined him still in a glass case, preserved exactly as he was.

“Help me find something to secure him with,” the Bomb says, pressing his body down with hers. “The poison takes him like this sometimes, and I have to restrain him until the fit passes.”

I can see why she came to me, why she feels as though something has to be done. I look around the room. Above a chest, there’s a pile of spare sheets. The Ghost starts tearing them into strips. “Go ahead and start,” he says.

with no idea what to do, I move to stand by the Roach’s feet and close my eyes. I imagine the earth under me, imagine the power of it seeping up through the soles of my feet. I picture it filling my body.

Then I feel self-conscious and stupid and stop.

I can’t do this. I am a mortal girl. I am the furthest thing from magic.

I can’t save Cardan. I can’t heal anyone. This isn’t going to work.

I open my eyes and shake my head.

The Ghost puts his hand on my shoulder, steps as close as he did when instructing me in the art of murder. His voice is soft. “Jude, stop trying to force it. Let it come.”

with a sigh, I close my eyes again. And again I try to feel the earth beneath me. The land of Faerie. I think of Val Moren’s words: Do you thinP a seed planted in goblin soil grows to be the same plant it would have in the mortal world? whatever I am, I have been nurtured here. This is my home and my land.

I feel once again that strange sensation of being stung all over with nettles.

WaPe, I think, putting my hand on his ankle. I am your queen, and I command you to waPe.

A spasm racks the Roach’s body. A vicious kick catches me in the stomach, knocking me against the wall.

I sag to the floor. The pain is intense enough that I am reminded how recently I received a gut wound.

“Jude!” the Bomb says, moving to secure his legs.

The Ghost kneels down by my side. “How hurt are you?”

I give a thumbs-up to indicate I’m okay, but I can’t speak yet.

The Roach cries again, but this time, it dwindles to something else. “Lil—” he says, voice sounding soft and scratchy, but speaking.

He’s conscious. Awake. Healed.

He grabs hold of the Bomb’s hand. “I’m dying,” he says. “The poison

—I was foolish. I don’t have long.” “You’re not dying,” she says.

“There’s something I could never tell you while I lived,” he says, pulling her closer to him. “I love you, Liliver. I’ve loved you from the first hour of our meeting. I loved you and despaired. Before I die, I want you to know that.”

The Ghost’s eyebrows rise, and he glances at me. I grin. with both of us on the floor, I doubt the Roach has any idea we’re there.

Besides, he’s too busy looking at the Bomb’s shocked face.

“I never wanted—” he begins, then bites off the words, clearly reading her expression as horror. “You don’t have to say anything in return. But before I die—”

You’re not dying,” she says again, and this time he seems to actually hear her.

“I see.” His face suffuses with shame. “I shouldn’t have spoken.”

I creep toward the kitchen, the Ghost behind me. As we head toward the door, I hear the Bomb’s soft voice.

“If you hadn’t,” she says, “then I couldn’t tell you that your feelings are returned.”

Outside, the Ghost and I walk back toward the palace, looking up at the stars. I think about how much cleverer the Bomb is than I am, because when she had her chance, she took it. She told him how she felt. I failed to tell Cardan. And now I never can.

I veer toward the pavilions of the low Courts. The Ghost looks a question at me.

“There’s one more thing I need to do before I sleep,” I tell him. He asks me nothing more, only matches his steps to mine.



we visit Mother Marrow and Severin, son of the Alderking who had Grimsen so long in his employ. They are my last hope. And though they meet me under the stars and hear me out politely, they have no answers.

“There must be a way,” I insist. “There must be something.”

“The difficulty,” says Mother Marrow, “is that you already know how to end the curse. 0nly death, Grimsen said. You want another answer, but magic is seldom so convenient as to conform to our preferences.”

The Ghost glowers nearby. I am grateful for his being with me, particularly right at the moment, when I am not sure I can bear to hear this alone.

“Grimsen would not have intended for the curse to be broken,” says Severin. His curved horns make him look fearsome, but his voice is gentle.

“All right.” I slump onto a nearby log. It wasn’t as though I was expecting good news, but I feel the fog of sorrow closing over me again. Mother Marrow narrows her eyes at me. “So you’re going to use this bridle from the Court of Teeth? I’d like to see it. Grimsen made such

interestingly awful things.”

“You’re welcome to have a look,” I say. “I’m supposed to tie my own hair to it.”

She snorts. “well, don’t do that. If you do that, you’ll be bound along with the serpent.”

You will be bound together.

The rage I feel is so great that for a moment, everything goes white, like a strike of lightning where the thunder is just behind it.

“So how ought it work?” I ask, my voice shaking with fury.

“There is probably a word of command,” she tells me with a shrug. “Hard to know what that would be, though, and the thing is useless without it.”

Severin shakes his head. “There’s only one thing the smith ever wanted anyone to remember.”

“His name,” I say.



It is not long after I arrive back at the palace that Tatterfell comes with the dress that Taryn found for me to wear to the banquet. Servants bring food and set about drawing me a bath. when I emerge, they perfume me and comb my hair as though I were a doll.

The gown is of silver, with stiff metal leaves stitched over it. I hide three knives in straps on my leg and one in a sheath between my breasts. Tatterfell looks askance at the fresh bruises coming up where I was kicked. But I say nothing of my misadventure, and she does not ask.

Growing up in Madoc’s household, I have gotten used to the presence of servants. There were cooks in the kitchens and grooms to care for the stables and a few household servants to make sure the beds were made and that things were decently tidy. But I came and went mostly as I pleased, free to set my own schedule and do what I liked.

Now, between the royal guard, Tatterfell, and the other palace servants, my every move is accounted for. I am barely ever alone and then not for long. In all the time I gazed at Eldred, high upon his throne, or at Cardan, tipping back yet another goblet of wine at a revel with a forced laugh, I didn’t understand the horror of being so powerful and so utterly powerless all at the same time.

“You may go,” I say to them when my hair is braided and my ears hung in shining silver in the shapes of arrowheads.

I cannot trick a curse and do not know how to fight one. I must somehow set that aside and focus on what I can do: evade the trap set for me by the Court of Teeth and avoid Madoc’s bid to restrict my power. I believe he intends to keep me High Queen, with my monstrous

High King forever by my side. And imagining that, I cannot help thinking how terrible it would be for Cardan to be trapped forever as a serpent.

I wonder if he’s in pain now. I wonder what it feels like to have corruption spread from your skin. I wonder if he has enough consciousness to feel humiliation being bridled before a Court that once loved him. whether hate will grow in his heart. Hate for them. Hate for me.

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.

Madoc, Lord Jarel, and Lady Nore plan to accompany me to the banquet, where I am to announce our alliance. I will have to establish my authority and hold it through the evening, a tricky proposition. The Court of Teeth are both presumptuous and sneering. I will look weak if I allow that to be directed at me—yet it would be unwise to risk our alliance by returning it. As for Madoc, I don’t doubt he will be full of fatherly advice, pushing me into the role of sullen daughter if I reject it too vociferously. But if I cannot stop them from getting the upper hand with me, then everything I’ve done, everything I’ve planned, will be for nothing.

with all that in mind, I throw back my shoulders and head to where our banquet will be held.

I keep my head high as I walk across the mossy grass. My dress flows behind me. The strands of silver woven through my hair shine under the stars. Following me comes the moth-winged page, holding up my train. The royal guard flank me at a respectful distance.

I spot Lord Roiben standing near an apple tree, his half-moon sword gleaming in a polished sheath. His companion, Kaye, is in a green dress very close to the color of her skin. Queen Annet is speaking with Lord Severin. Randalin is drinking cup after cup of wine. All of them seem subdued. They have seen a curse unfold, and if they are still here, it is because they intend to fight on the morrow.

0nly one of us can tell them lies. I recall Cardan’s words to me the last time we spoke to the rulers of the low Courts.

But tonight it is not lies that I need. And it is not precisely the truth, either.

At the sight of me with Madoc and the rulers of the Court of Teeth, a hush goes over the gathered company. All those inkdrop eyes look in my direction. All those hungry, beautiful faces, turning to me as though I were a wounded lamb in a world of lions.

“Lords and ladies and denizens of Elfhame,” I speak into the silence. Then I hesitate. I am as unused to giving speeches as anyone could be. “As a child in the High Court, I grew up with wild, impossible wonder tales—of curses and monsters. Tales that even here, in Faerie, were too incredible to be believed. But now our High King is a serpent, and we are all plunged into a wonder tale.

“Cardan destroyed the crown because he wanted to be a different kind of ruler and to have a different kind of reign. At least in one way, that has already been accomplished. Madoc and Queen Suren of the Court of Teeth laid down their arms. we met and hammered out the terms of a truce.”

A low murmur goes through the crowd.

I do not look to my side. Madoc must not like that I am characterizing this alliance as my triumph, and Lord Jarel and Lady Nore must hate my treating their daughter as though she is the member of the Court of Teeth owed deference.

I go on. “I have invited them here tonight to feast with us, and tomorrow we will all meet on the field, not to battle, but to tame the serpent and end the threat to Elfhame. Together.”

There is scattered, uncertain applause.

with my whole heart, I wish Cardan was here. I can almost imagine him lounging on a chair, giving me pointers on speechmaking. It would have annoyed me so much, and now, thinking of it, there’s a cold pit of longing in my stomach.

I miss him, and the pain of it is a yawning chasm, one into which I yearn to let myself fall.

I lift my goblet, and all around, goblets and glasses and horns are raised. “Let us drink to Cardan, our High King, who sacrificed himself for his people. who broke the hold of the Blood Crown. Let us drink to those alliances that have proved to be as firm as the bedrock of the isles of Elfhame. And let us drink to the promise of peace.”

when I tip back my goblet, everyone drinks with me. It seems as though something has shifted in the air. I hope it’s enough.

“A fine speech, daughter,” Madoc says. “But nowhere in it was my promised reward.”

“To make you first among my councilors? And yet already you lecture me.” I fix him with a steady look. “Until we have the serpent bridled, our deal is not yet struck.”

He frowns. I do not wait for him to argue the point but step away and go to a small knot of the Folk from the Court of Teeth.

“Lady Nore.” She looks surprised that I’ve addressed her, as though it ought to be presumption on my part. “You have not perhaps met Lady Asha, mother to the High King.”

“I suppose not,” she agrees. “Although—”

I take her arm and steer her to where Lady Asha stands, surrounded by her favorite courtiers. Lady Asha looks alarmed by my approach and even more alarmed when I begin speaking.

“I have heard that you wish for a new role in the Court,” I say to her. “I am thinking of making you an ambassador to the Court of Teeth, so it seemed useful for you to meet Lady Nore.”

There is absolutely no truth to what I’m saying. But I want Lady Asha to know that I have heard of her plotting and that if she crosses me, I am capable of sending her away from the comforts she prizes most. And it seems like a fitting punishment for both of them to be afflicted with each other.

“would you really force me so far from my son?” she asks.

“If you’d prefer to remain here and have a hand in caring for the serpent,” I say, “you have only to say so.”

Lady Asha looks as though what she’d really prefer is to stab me in the throat. I turn away from her and Lady Nore. “Enjoy your conversation.” Maybe they will. They both hate me. That gives them at least one thing in common.

A blur of dishes is brought out by servants. Tender stalks of fern, walnuts wrapped in rose petals, wine bottles choked with herbal infusions, tiny birds roasted whole with honey. As I stare out at the Folk, it seems as though the gardens are spinning around me. A strange sense of unreality intrudes. Dizzily, I look around for one of my sisters, for someone from the Court of Shadows. Even Fand.

“Your Majesty,” comes a voice. It is Lord Roiben at my elbow. My chest constricts. I am not sure I am able to project authority to him, of all people, right now.

“It was good of you to stay,” I say. “After Cardan broke the crown, I wasn’t sure you would.”

He nods. “I never cared much for him,” he says, staring down at me with his gray eyes, pale as river water. “It was you who persuaded me to pledge to the crown in the first place, and you who brokered peace after the Undersea broke their treaty.”

By killing Balekin. I can hardly forget.

“And I might have fought for you regardless if for no other reason than a mortal Queen of Faerie cannot help but delight many people I hold dear and annoy many people I dislike. But after what Cardan did in the great hall, I understand why you were willing to take mad gamble after mad gamble to put him on the throne, and I would have fought until the breath left my body.”

I never expected such a speech from him. It grounds me to the spot.

Roiben touches a bracelet at his wrist, with woven green threads running through it. No, not thread. Hair. “He was willing to break the Blood Crown and trust in the loyalty of his subjects instead of compel it. He’s the true High King of Faerie.”

I open my mouth to reply when, across the expanse of grass, I see Nicasia in a shimmering gown the silver of fish scales weaving between courtiers and rulers.

And I notice Roiben’s consort, Kaye, moving toward her. “Um,” I say. “Your, um, girlfriend is about to—”

He turns to look just in time for both of us to see Kaye punch Nicasia right in the face. She stumbles into another courtier and then hits the ground. The pixie shakes her hand as though she hurt her knuckles.

Nicasia’s selkie guards run toward her. Roiben immediately begins moving through the crowd, which parts for him. I try to follow, but Madoc blocks my way.

“A queen does not race toward a fight like a schoolgirl,” he says, grabbing hold of my shoulder. I am not so distracted by annoyance not to see the opportunity before me. I pull out of his grip, taking three strands of his hair with me.

A redheaded knight shoves her way between Kaye and Nicasia’s selkie guards. I don’t know her, but by the time Roiben gets there, it seems clear that everyone is threatening to duel everyone else.

“Get out of my way,” I growl at Madoc, then take off at a run. I ignore anyone who tries to speak with me. Maybe I look ridiculous, holding up

my gown to my knees, but I don’t care. I certainly look ridiculous when I tuck something into my cleavage.

Nicasia’s jaw is red, and her throat is flushed. I have to choke down a wholly inappropriate laugh.

“You best not defend a pixie,” she tells me grandly.

The redheaded knight is mortal, wearing the livery of the Alderking’s Court. She’s got a bloody nose, which I assume means that she and the selkies already got into it. Lord Roiben looks ready to draw the blade at his hip. Since he was just talking about fighting until the breath left his body, that’s something I’d rather avoid.

Kaye is wearing a more revealing gown than she did the last time I saw her. It shows a scar that starts at her throat and runs down over her chest. It looks half like a cut, half like a burn, and definitely something it makes sense for her to be angry about. “I don’t need any defending,” she says. “I can handle my own business.”

“You’re lucky all she did was hit you,” I tell Nicasia. Her presence makes my pulse thrum with nerves. I can’t help remembering what it was to be her captive in the Undersea. I turn to Kaye. “But this is over now. Understood?”

Roiben puts his hand on her shoulder.

“I guess,” Kaye says, and then stomps off in her big boots. Roiben waits a moment, but I shake my head. Then he follows his consort.

Nicasia touches fingers to her jaw, regarding me carefully. “I see you got my note,” I say.

“And I see you are consorting with the enemy,” she returns with a glance in Madoc’s direction. “Come with me.”

“where?” I ask.

“Anywhere no one can hear us.”

we walk off together through the gardens, leaving both our guard behind. She grabs hold of my hand. “Is it true? Cardan is under a curse? He is transformed into a monster whose scales have broken the spears of your Folk.”

I give a tight nod.

To my astonishment, she sinks down to her knees. “what are you doing?” I say, aghast.

“Please,” she says, her head bent. “Please. You must try to break the curse. I know that you are the queen by right and that you may not want him back, but—”

If anything could have increased my astonishment, it was that. “You think that I’d—”

“I didn’t know you, before,” she says, the anguish clear in her voice. There is a hitch in her breath that comes with weeping. “I thought you were just some mortal.”

I have to bite my tongue at that, but I don’t interrupt her.

“when you became his seneschal, I told myself that he wanted you for your lying tongue. Or because you’d become biddable, although you never were before. I should have believed you when you told him he didn’t know the least of what you could do.

“while you were in exile, I got more of the story out of him. I know you don’t believe this, but Cardan and I were friends before we were lovers, before Locke. He was my first friend when I came here from the Undersea. And we were friends, even after everything. I hate that he loves you.”

“He hated it, too,” I say with a laugh that sounds more brittle than I’d like.

Nicasia fixes me with a long look. “No, he didn’t.” To that, I can only be silent.

“He frightens the Folk, but he’s not what you think he is,” Nicasia says. “Do you remember the servants that Balekin had? The human servants?”

I nod mutely. Of course I remember. I will never forget Sophie and her pockets full of stones.

“They’d go missing sometimes, and there were rumors that Cardan hurt them, but it wasn’t true. He’d return them to the mortal world.”

I admit, I’m surprised. “why?”

She throws up a hand. “I don’t know! Perhaps to annoy his brother. But you’re human, so I thought you’d like that he did it. And he sent you a gown. For the coronation.”

I remember it—the ball gown in the colors of night, with the stark outlines of trees stitched on it and the crystals for stars. A thousand times more beautiful than the dress I commissioned. I had thought perhaps it came from Prince Dain, since it was his coronation and I’d sworn to be his creature when I joined the Court of Shadows.

“He never told you, did he?” Nicasia says. “So see? Those are two nice things about him you didn’t know. And I saw the way you used to look at him when you didn’t think anyone was watching you.”

I bite the inside of my cheek, embarrassed despite the fact that we were lovers, and wed, and it should hardly be a secret that we like each other.

“So promise me,” she says. “Promise me you’ll help him.”

I think of the golden bridle, about the future the stars predicted. “I don’t know how to break the curse,” I say, all the tears I haven’t shed welling up in my eyes. “If I could, do you think I would be at this stupid banquet? Tell me what I must slay, what I must steal, tell me the riddle I must solve or the hag I must trick. Only tell me the way, and I will do it, no matter the danger, no matter the hardship, no matter the cost.” My voice breaks.

She gives me a steady look. whatever else I might think of her, she really does care for Cardan.

And as tears roll over my cheeks, to her astonishment, I think she realizes I do, too.

Much good it does him.



when we finish talking, I go back to the banquet and find the new Alderking. He looks surprised to see me. Beside him is the mortal knight with the bloody nose. A red-haired human I recognize as Severin’s consort is stuffing her nose with cotton. The consort and the knight are twins, I realize. Not identical, like Taryn and me, but twins all the same. Twin humans in Faerie. And neither of them looking particularly discomfited by it.

“I need something from you,” I tell Severin.

He makes his bow. “Of course, my queen. whatever is mine is yours.”



That night, I lie on Cardan’s enormous bed in his enormous bedchambers. I spread out, kick at the covers.

I look at the golden bridle sitting on a chair beside me, glowing in the low lamplight.

If I got it on the serpent, I would have him with me always. Once bridled, I could bring him here. He could curl up on the rug in this very

room, and though it might make me as much a monster as he is, at least I wouldn’t be alone.

Eventually I sleep.

In my dreams, Cardan the snake looms over me, his black scales gleaming.

“I love you,” I say, and then he devours me.

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