Chapter no 27

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

C‌ardan’s fingers dig into my back. He’s trembling, and whether it is from ebbing magic or horror, I am not sure. But he holds me as though I am the only solid thing in the world.

Soldiers approach, and Cardan lets go abruptly. His jaw sets. He waves away a knight who proffers his cloak, despite being clad only in blood.

“I haven’t worn anything in days,” the High King drawls, and if there is something brittle in his eyes, nearly everyone is too awed to notice. “I don’t see why I ought to start now.”

“Modesty?” I force out, playing along, surprised he can joke about the curse, or anything.

He gives me a dazzling, insouciant smile. The kind of smile you can hide behind. “Every part of me is a delight.”

My chest hurts, looking at him. I feel like I can’t breathe. Though he is in front of me, the pain of losing him hasn’t faded.

“Your Majesty,” Grima Mog says, addressing me. “Do I have leave to chain your father?”

I hesitate, thinking of the moment when I confronted him with the golden bridle. You’ve already won.

“Yes,” Cardan says. “Chain him.”

A carriage is brought, wheels wobbling over the rocks. Grima Mog shouts orders. Two generals clasp manacles around Madoc’s wrists and ankles, the heavy chains clanking with even the slightest movement. Archers keep arrows trained on him as they lead him away.

His army is surrendering, taking oaths of submission. I hear the whir of wings, the clank of armor, and cries from the wounded. Redcaps freshen the pigment of their hats. A few Folk feast on the dead. There’s smoke in the air, mingling with the scents of the sea and of blood and moss. The aftermath of even a brief battle is all dwindling adrenaline, bandages, and feting the victors.

The revel will have already begun back at the palace and will last far longer than the fighting.

Inside the carriage, Cardan slumps. I stare at him, at the blood drying in tide lines over his body and crusting in his curls like tiny garnets. I force myself to look out the window instead.

“How long have I—” He hesitates.

“Not even three days,” I tell him. “Barely any time at all.” I do not mention how long it has seemed.

Nor do I say how he might have been trapped as a serpent for all time, bridled and bound. Or dead.

He could be dead.

Then the carriage draws up, and we are chivied out. Servants have brought an enormous velvet cloak for Cardan, and this time he accepts it, wrapping it around his shoulders as we make our way through the chilly underground halls.

“You will want to bathe perhaps,” Randalin says, an understandable sentiment.

“I want to see the throne,” says Cardan. No one is inclined to gainsay him.

The brugh is full of turned-over tables and rotting fruit. A crack runs through the ground to the split throne, with its wilted flowers. Cardan spreads his hands, and the earth heals along the seam, rock and stone bubbling up to fill it back in. Then he twists his fingers, and the divided throne grows anew, blooming with briars, sprouting into two separate thrones where there was once only one.

“Do you like it?” he asks me, which seems a little like asking if someone enjoys the crown of stars they conjured from the sky.

“Impressive,” I choke out.

Seemingly satisfied, he finally allows Randalin to guide us to the royal chambers, which are full of servants, generals, and most of the Living Council. A bath is drawn for the High King. A carafe of wine is brought, along with an ornate goblet studded with cabochons. Fala

sings a song about the king of snakes, and Cardan seems both charmed and horrified by all of it.

Unwilling to strip off my armor in front of all these Folk and sticky with blood, I slip out and go to my old rooms.

But when I get there, I find Heather. She stands up from the couch, holding an enormous tome. The pink of her hair is faded, but everything else about her looks vibrant. “Congratulations, if that’s not too weird of a thing to say. I don’t know how to talk about fights, but I hear you won.”

“we won,” I confirm, and smile.

She tugs at a double strand of very poorly strung rowan berries around her neck. “Vee made me this. For the after-party.” Heather seems to notice what I am wearing for the first time. “That’s not your blood—”

“No,” I say. “I’m fine. Just gross.” She nods slowly.

“And Cardan,” I say. “He’s fine, too.”

The tome tumbles out of her hand and onto the couch. “He’s not a big snake anymore?”

“No,” I say. “But I think I might be hyperventilating. That’s what you call it, right? Breathing too fast. Dizzy.”

“Nobody in this place knows anything about human medicine, do they?” She walks over and starts working on my armor. “Let’s get this off you, and see if that helps.”

“Talk to me,” I say. “Tell me another fairy tale. Tell me something.” “Okay,” she says, trying to figure out how to undo the armor. “I took

your advice and talked to Vee. Finally. I told her that I didn’t want my memories to be taken away and that I was sorry I let her make the promise.”

“was she glad?” I help Heather with one of the clasps.

“we had a huge fight. Screaming fight,” she says. “with a lot of crying, too.”

“Oh,” I say.

“Do you remember the fairy tale with the snake who has the helicopter parents and marries the princess?”

“Helicopter?” I echo. I did fall asleep at the end, so maybe I missed that part.

“when the boy’s snakeskin is burned, the princess had to earn him back by going on a quest. well, I told Vee she has to go on a quest. She has to meet me all over again and do it right this time. Tell me the truth from the start. And convince me to love her.”

“Damn.” The last of my armor comes off, clanking to the floor, and I realize that her talking has distracted me enough for my breathing to return to normal. “That is some serious fairy-tale business. A quest.”

Heather reaches out her hand to take mine. “If she succeeds, all my memories come back. But if not, then tonight’s the last time I am going to see you.”

“I hope you drink the cellars dry at the revel,” I say to her, pulling her into a tight embrace. “But more than that, I hope Vee is good enough to win your hand again.”

The door opens, and Oriana comes in. Upon seeing me, she looks panicked. Immediately, she bows low, pressing her forehead nearly to the floor.

“You don’t have to do that,” I say, and she fixes me with a sharp look. I can see she has a lot of thoughts about my behavior as High Queen, and there’s a moment of sharp satisfaction that she can’t tell me any of them without breaking her own rules of what’s appropriate.

She rises from her bow. “I hope that you will grant mercy to your father. For your brother’s sake, if not for your own.”

“I’ve already been merciful,” I say, and lifting my armor, I flee into the hallway.

I should not have left the royal chambers. It was an old impulse, to leave Cardan to rule while I operated from the shadows. And it was a relief to be away from all those staring eyes. But far from Cardan, everything has taken on a tinge of unreality, and I worry that somehow the curse was never broken, that all this is the fantasy of a feverish mind. I hurriedly retrace my steps through the hall, clad in only the padded gambeson and leg coverings under my armor.

when I get back, I find Cardan gone, along with all the dignitaries. The bathwater is still warm, and there are candles still burning, but the rooms are empty.

“I refilled it,” says Tatterfell, coming out of I-don’t-know-where and startling me. “Get in. You’re a mess.”

“where’s Cardan?” I ask, starting to strip off the last of my clothes.

“The brugh. where else?” she says. “You’re the one who’s late. But as the hero of the hour, that’s all to the good. I am going to make you into a vision.”

“Sounds like a lot of work on your part,” I tell her, but climb obediently into the tub, disturbing primrose petals floating there. The hot water feels good on my sore muscles. I let myself sink under it. The problem with coming through something terrible and big is that afterward, you’re left feeling all the feelings that you shoved down and pushed away. For many long days, I have been terrified, and now, when I ought to be feeling great, what I want to do is hide under a table in the brugh with Cardan until I can finally convince myself he’s all right.

And maybe make out with his face, if he’s feeling up to that.

I surface from the water and wipe my hair back from my eyes. Tatterfell hands me a cloth. “Scrub the blood off your knuckles,” she instructs.

Once more, she braids my hair into horns, this time threaded with gold. She has a bronze velvet tunic for me. Over it, she puts a bronze leather coat with a high curled collar and a cape-like train that blows in even the slightest wind. And last, bronze gloves with wide cuffs.

Dressed in such finery, it would have been difficult to slip into the brugh unnoticed, even if horns didn’t blare at my entrance.

“The High Queen of Elfhame, Jude Duarte,” announces a page in a carrying voice.

I spot Cardan, sitting at the head of the high table. Even from across the room, I can feel the intensity of his gaze.

Long tables have been set up for a proper feast. Each platter is heavy with food: great globes of fruit, hazelnuts, bread stuffed with dates. Honey wine perfumes the air.

I can hear performers competing to get the lyrics right on their new compositions, many of them in honor of the serpent king. At least one is in my honor, however:

0ur queen sheathed her sword and closed her eyes, And said, “I thought the snaPe would be of larger size.”

A fresh batch of servants come from the kitchens, carrying trays heaped with pale meat in different preparations—grilled and poached in oil, roasted and stewed. It takes me a moment to recognize what I am looking at. It’s serpent meat. Meat cut from the body of the enormous serpent that had been their High King and might give them a measure

of his magic. I look at it and feel the overwhelming disorientation of being mortal. Some faerie ways will never not horrify me.

I hope that Cardan is undisturbed. Certainly, he appears blithesome, laughing as courtiers heap their plates.

“I always supposed I would be delicious,” I hear him say, although I note that he does not take any of the meat for himself.

Again, I imagine ducking underneath the table and hiding there, as I did when I was a child. As I did after the bloody coronation, with him.

But I go to the high table instead and find my place, which is, of course, at the head of the opposite end. we stare at each other across the expanse of silver and cloth and candles.

Then he rises, and all across the brugh, the Folk fall silent. “Tomorrow we must deal with all that has befallen us,” he says, lifting a goblet high. “But tonight let us remember our triumph, our trickery, and our delight in one another.”

we all toast to that.

There are songs—a seemingly endless array of songs—and dishes enough that even a mortal like myself can eat my fill. I watch Heather and Vivi weave through the tables to dance. I spot the Roach and the Bomb, sitting in the shadows of the re-formed thrones. He is tossing grapes into her mouth and never missing, not once. Grima Mog is discussing something with Lord Roiben, half her plate heaped with snake and half her plate heaped with another meat that I do not recognize. Nicasia sits in a place of honor, not far from the high table, her subjects around her. I spot Taryn near the musicians, telling a story with great sweeps of her hands. I see the Ghost, too, watching her.

“Your pardon,” someone says, and I see the Minister of Keys, Randalin, at Cardan’s shoulder.

“Councilor,” Cardan says, leaning back against the table, his posture the easy languor of someone who’s already in his cups. “were you hoping for one of these little honey cakes? I could have passed them down the table.”

“There’s the matter of the prisoners—Madoc, his army, what remains of the Court of Teeth,” Randalin says. “And many other matters we were hoping to take up with you.”

“Tomorrow,” Cardan insists. “Or the next day. Or perhaps next week.” And with that, he rises, takes a long drink from his goblet, sets it down on the table, and walks to where I sit.

“will you dance?” he asks, presenting his hand.

“You may remember that I am not particularly accomplished at it,” I say, rising. The last time we danced was the night of Prince Dain’s coronation, just before everything went sideways. He had been very, very drunk.

You really hate me, don’t you? he’d asked.

Almost as much as you hate me, I’d returned.

He draws me down to where fiddle players are exhorting everyone to dance faster and faster, to whirl and spin and jump. His hands cover mine.

“I don’t know what to apologize for first,” I say. “Cutting off your head or hesitating so long to do it. I didn’t want to lose what little there was left of you. And I can’t quite think past how wonderous it is that you’re alive.”

“You don’t know how long I’ve waited to hear those words,” he says. “You don’t want me dead.”

“If you joke about this, I am going to—” “Kill me?” he asks, raising both black brows. I think I might hate him after all.

Then Cardan takes my hands in his and pulls me away from the other dancers, toward the secret chamber he showed me before, behind the dais. It is as I remember it, its walls thick with moss, a low couch resting beneath gently glowing mushrooms.

“I only know how to be cruel or to laugh when I am discomposed,” he says, and sits down on the couch.

I let go of him and remain standing. I promised myself I would do this, if I ever had the chance again. I promised I would do this the first moment I could.

“I love you,” I say, the words coming out in an unintelligible rush.

Cardan looks taken aback. Or possibly I spoke so fast he’s not even sure what I said. “You need not say it out of pity,” he says finally, with great deliberateness. “Or because I was under a curse. I have asked you to lie to me in the past, in this very room, but I would beg you not to lie now.”

My cheeks heat at the memory of those lies.

“I have not made myself easy to love,” he says, and I hear the echo of his mother’s words in his.

when I imagined telling him, I thought I would say the words, and it would be like pulling off a bandage—painful and swift. But I didn’t think he would doubt me. “I first started liking you when we went to talk to the rulers of the low Courts,” I say. “You were funny, which was weird. And when we went to Hollow Hall, you were clever. I kept remembering how you’d been the one to get us out of the brugh after Dain’s coronation, right before I put that knife to your throat.”

He doesn’t try to interrupt, so I have no choice but to barrel on. “After I tricked you into being the High King,” I say. “I thought once

you hated me, I could go back to hating you. But I didn’t. And I felt so stupid. I thought I would get my heart broken. I thought it was a weakness that you would use against me. But then you saved me from the Undersea when it would have been much more convenient to just leave me to rot. After that, I started to hope my feelings were returned. But then there was the exile—” I take a ragged breath. “I hid a lot, I guess. I thought if I didn’t, if I let myself love you, I would burn up like a match. Like the whole matchbook.”

“But now you’ve explained it,” he says. “And you do love me.” “I love you,” I confirm.

“Because I am clever and funny,” he says, smiling. “You didn’t mention my handsomeness.”

“Or your deliciousness,” I say. “Although those are both good qualities.”

He pulls me to him, so that we’re both lying down on the couch. I look down at the blackness of his eyes and the softness of his mouth. I wipe a fleck of dried blood from the top of one pointed ear. “what was it like?” I ask. “Being a serpent.”

He hesitates. “It was like being trapped in the dark,” he says. “I was alone, and my instinct was to lash out. I was perhaps not entirely an animal, but neither was I myself. I could not reason. There were only feelings—hatred and terror and the desire to destroy.”

I start to speak, but he stops me with a gesture. “And you.” He looks at me, his lips curving in something that’s not quite a smile; it’s more and less than that. “I knew little else, but I always knew you.”

And when he kisses me, I feel as though I can finally breathe again.

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