Chapter no 3

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

My muscles stiffen up almost immediately, and the idea of pedaling home makes me feel so tired I’d rather just lie down on the sidewalk, so I take the bus. I get a lot of dirty looks from impatient commuters while strapping my bike to the rack on the front, but when people notice I’m bleeding, they decide in favor of ignoring me.‌

My sense of a day’s shape sits oddly with the human world. In Faerie, staggering home at dawn is the equivalent of staggering home at midnight for mortals. But in the human world, the bright light of morning is supposed to banish shadows. It’s a virtuous time, for early risers, not ne’er-do-wells. An elderly woman in a jaunty pink hat passes me a few tissues without comment, which I appreciate. I use them to clean myself up the best I can. For the rest of the ride, I look out the window at the blue sky, hurting and feeling sorry for myself. Raiding my pockets yields four aspirin. I take them in a single bitter mouthful.

Your High King is to be dethroned before the next full moon. How do you liPe those apples?

I try to tell myself that I don’t care. That I should be glad if Elfhame winds up conquered. Cardan has plenty of other people to warn him of what’s coming. There’s the Court of Shadows and half of his military. The rulers of the low Courts, all sworn to him. The whole Living Council. Even a new seneschal, should he bother to appoint one.

I don’t want to think of someone else standing beside Cardan in my place, but my mind turns idly through all the worst choices anyway. He can’t choose Nicasia, because she’s already the Ambassador of the

Undersea. He won’t pick Locke, because he’s already the Master of Revels and because he’s insufferable. And not Lady Asha because … because she’d be awful. She’d find the job boring, and she’d trade his influence for whatever benefited her the most. Surely he knows better than to choose her. But maybe he doesn’t. Cardan can be reckless. Maybe he and his wicked, heedless mother will make a mockery of the Greenbriar line and the Blood Crown. I hope they do. I hope everybody will be sorry, and him, most of all him.

And then Madoc will march in and take over.

I press my forehead against the cool glass and remind myself that it’s no longer my problem. Instead of trying—and failing—not to think about Cardan, I try not to think at all.

I wake to someone shaking my shoulder. “Hey, kid,” the bus driver says, worry etched in the lines of his face. “Kid?”

There was a time when my knife would have been in my hand and pressed to his throat before he finished speaking. I realize groggily that I don’t even have my knife. I forgot to scout around the outside of Grima Mog’s building and retrieve it.

“I’m up,” I say unconvincingly, rubbing my face with one hand.

“For a minute there, I thought you’d kicked it.” He frowns. “That’s a lot of blood. You want me to call someone?”

“I’m fine,” I say. I realize the bus is mostly empty. “Did I miss my stop?”

“we’re here.” He looks as though he wants to insist on getting me help. Then he shakes his head with a sigh. “Don’t forget that bike.”

I was stiff before, but nothing like now. I creak down the aisle like a root woman pulling her limbs from the ground for the first time. My fingers fumble with the mechanics of getting my bike off the front, and I notice the rusty stain on my fingers. I wonder if I just wiped blood across my face in front of the bus driver and touched my cheek self- consciously. I can’t tell.

But then my bike is down, and I am able to shuffle across the grass toward the apartment building. I am going to drop the bike in the bushes and take my chances with its getting stolen. That promise to myself gets me most of the way home when I spot someone sitting on the stoop. Pink hair glowing in the sunlight. She lifts a paper coffee cup in salute.

“Heather?” I say, keeping my distance. Considering how the bus driver looked at me, showing off my fresh cuts and bruises seems like a bad idea.

“I’m trying to get up the bravery to knock.”

“Ah,” I say, leaning my bike down on the grass. The bushes are too far off. “well, you can just come in with me and—”

“No!” she says, and then realizing how loud that came out, lowers her voice. “I don’t know if I’m going in today.”

I look at her again, realizing how tired she seems, how faded the pink in her hair is, as though she hasn’t bothered to re-dye it. “How long have you been out here?”

“Not long.” She glances away from me and shrugs. “I come here sometimes. To check how I feel.”

with a sigh, I give up on the idea that I am going to hide that I got hurt. I walk to the stairs, then slump down on a step, too tired to keep standing.

Heather stands. “Jude? Oh no, oh holy—what the—what happened to you?” she demands. I wince. Her voice is much too loud.

“Shhhh! I thought you didn’t want Vivi to know you’re here,” I remind her. “Anyway, it looks worse than it is. I just need a shower and some bandages. And a good day’s sleep.”

“Okay,” she says in a way that makes me think she doesn’t believe me. “Let me help you go in. Please don’t worry about me tripping over seeing your sister or whatever. You’re actually hurt. You shouldn’t have stood there talking to me!”

I shake my head, holding up a hand to ward off her offer. “I’ll be fine.

Just let me sit for a minute.”

She gazes at me, worry warring with her desire to put off the inevitable confrontation with Vivi a little longer. “I thought you were still in that place? Did you get hurt there?”

“Faerieland?” I like Heather, but I am not going to pretend away the world I grew up in because she hates the idea of it. “No. This happened here. I’ve been staying with Vivi. Trying to figure things out. But if you move back in, I can make myself scarce.”

She looks down at her knees. Bites a corner of a fingernail. Shakes her head. “Love is stupid. All we do is break one another’s hearts.”

“Yeah,” I say, thinking again of Cardan and how I walked right into the trap he set for me, as though I were some fool who’d never heard a

ballad in her life. No matter how much happiness I wish for Vivi, I don’t want Heather to be the same kind of fool. “Yeah, no. Love might be stupid, but you’re not. I know about the message you sent Vivi. You can’t go through with it.”

Heather takes a long sip from her cup. “I have nightmares. About that place. Faerie. I can’t sleep. I look at people on the street, and I wonder if they’re glamoured. This world already has enough monsters, enough people who want to take advantage of me or hurt me or take away my rights. I don’t need to know there’s a whole other world full of monsters.”

“So not knowing is better?” I ask.

She scowls and is silent. Then, when she speaks again, she looks out past me, as though she’s looking at the parking lot. “I can’t even explain to my parents what Vee and I are fighting about. They keep asking me if she was kicking it with someone else or if having Oak around was just too much, like I can’t handle him being a Pid, instead of whatever he is.”

“He’s still a kid,” I say.

“I hate being afraid of Oak,” she says. “I know it hurts his feelings. But I also hate that he and Vee have magic, magic that she could use to win every argument that we could ever have. Magic to make me obsessed with her. Or turn me into a duck. And that’s not even considering why I’m attracted to her in the first place.”

I frown. “wait, what?”

Heather turns toward me. “Do you know what makes people love one another? well, no one else does, either. But scientists study it, and there’s all this bizarre stuff about pheromones and facial symmetry and the circumstances under which you first met. People are weird. Our bodies are weird. Maybe I can’t help being attracted to her the same way flies can’t help being attracted to carnivorous plants.”

I make an incredulous sound, but Balekin’s words echo in my ears. I have heard that for mortals, the feeling of falling in love is very liPe the feeling of fear. Maybe he was more right than I wanted to believe.

Especially when I consider my feelings for Cardan, since there was no good reason I should have had any feelings for him at all.

“Okay,” Heather says, “I know I sound ridiculous. I feel ridiculous. But I also feel afraid. And I still think we should go inside and bandage you up.”

“Make Vivi promise not to use magic on you,” I say. “I can help you say the exact right words to bind her and then—” I stop speaking when I see that Heather is looking at me sadly, maybe because believing in promises sounds childish. Or maybe the idea of binding Vivi with a promise sounds magical enough to freak her out more.

Heather takes a deep breath. “Vee told me that she grew up here, before your parents were murdered. I’m sorry to even mention it, but I know she’s messed up about it. I mean, of course she is. Anyone would be.” She takes a breath. She’s waiting to see how I react.

I think about her words as I sit on the stairs, bruises coming up beside sluggishly bleeding slashes. Anyone would be. Nope, not me, not messed up at all.

I remember a much younger Vivi, who was furious all the time, who screamed and broke whatever she touched. who slapped me every time I let Madoc hold me in the crook of his arm. who seemed as though she would bring down his entire hall with her rage. But that was so long ago. we all gave in to our new life; it was just a matter of when.

I don’t say any of that. Heather takes a shaky breath. “The thing is, I wonder if she’s, you know, playing house with me. Pretending her life went the way she wanted. Pretending she never found out who she was and where she was from.”

I reach out and take Heather’s hand. “Vivi stayed so long in Faerie for me and Taryn,” I say. “She didn’t want to be there. And the reason she finally left was because of you. Because she loved you. So yeah, Vivi took the easy way out in not explaining stuff. She should definitely have told you the truth about Faerie. And she should have never, ever used magic on you, even if it was out of panic. But now you know. And I guess you have to decide if you can forgive her.”

She starts to say something, then stops herself. “would you?” she asks finally.

“I don’t know,” I say, looking at my knees. “I am not a very forgiving person these days.”

Heather stands. “Okay. You rested. Now get up. You need to go inside and take a bath in Neosporin. You probably should see a doctor, but I know what you’re going to say about that.”

“You’re right,” I say. “Right about everything. No doctor.” I roll onto my side to try to push myself to my feet, and when Heather comes over

to help me, I let her. I even lean my weight on her as we limp together to the door. I have given up on being proud. As Bryern reminded me, I am no one special.

Heather and I go together through the kitchen, past the table with Oak’s cereal bowl sitting on it, still half-full of pink milk. Two empty coffee mugs rest beside a box of Froot Loops. I note the number of mugs before my brain gives meaning to that detail. Just as Heather helps me into the living room, I realize we must have a guest.

Vivi is sitting on the couch. Her face lights up when she sees Heather. She looks at her like someone who just stole a giant’s magnificent talking harp and knows consequences are on the horizon but can’t bring herself to care. My gaze goes to the person beside her, sitting primly in a fanciful Elfhame court dress of gossamer and spun glass. My twin sister, Taryn.

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