Chapter no 5

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

S‌ince Oak is at school, I curl up in his bed. As hurt as I am, sleep overtakes me quickly, sucking me down into darkness.

And dreams.

I am at lessons in the palace grove, sitting in the long shadows of the late afternoon. The moon has already risen, a sharp crescent in the cloudless blue sky. I draw a star chart from memory, my ink a dark red that clots on the paper. It’s blood, I realize. I am dabbing my quill into an inkpot full of blood.

Across the grove, I see Prince Cardan, sitting with his usual companions. Valerian and Locke look strange: their clothing moth- eaten, their skin pallid, and only inky smudges where their eyes ought to be. Nicasia doesn’t seem to notice. Her sea-colored hair hangs down her back in heavy coils; her lips are twisted into a mocking smile, as though nothing in the world is wrong. Cardan wears a bloodstained crown, tilted at an angle, the sharp planes of his face as hauntingly beautiful as ever.

“Do you remember what I said before I died?” Valerian calls to me in his taunting voice. “I curse you. Three times, I curse you. As you’ve murdered me, may your hands always be stained with blood. May death be your only companion. May you—That’s when I died, so I never got to say the rest. would you like to hear it now? May your life be brief and shrouded in sorrow, and when you die, may you go unmourned.”

I shudder. “Yeah, that last bit really was the zinger.”

Cardan comes over, stepping on my star chart, kicking over the inkpot with his silver-tipped boots, sending the blood spilling across the paper, blotting out my marks. “Come with me,” he says imperiously.

“I knew you liked her,” says Locke. “That’s why I had to have her first. Do you remember the party in my maze garden? How I kissed her while you watched?”

“I recall that your hands were on her, but her eyes were on me,” Cardan returns.

“That’s not true!” I insist, but I remember Cardan on a blanket with a daffodil-haired faerie girl. She pressed her lips to the edge of his boot, and another girl kissed his throat. His gaze had turned to me when one of them began kissing his mouth. His eyes were coal-bright, as wet as tar.

The memory comes with the slide of Locke’s palm over my back, heat in my cheeks, and the feeling my skin was too tight, that everything was too much.

“Come with me,” Cardan says again, drawing me away from the blood-soaked star chart and the others taking their lessons. “I am a prince of Faerie. You have to do what I want.”

He leads me to the dappled shade of an oak tree, then lifts me up so I am seated on a low branch. He keeps his hands on my waist and moves closer, so that he’s standing between my thighs.

“Isn’t this better?” he says, gazing up at me. I am not sure what he means, but I nod.

“You’re so beautiful.” He begins to trace patterns on my arms, then runs his hands down my sides. “So very beautiful.”

His voice is soft, and I make the mistake of looking into his black eyes, at his wicked, curving mouth.

“But your beauty will fade,” he continues, just as softly, speaking like a lover. His hands linger, making my stomach tighten and warmth pool in my belly. “This smooth skin will wrinkle and spot. It will become as thin as cobwebs. These breasts will droop. Your hair will grow dull and thin. Your teeth will yellow. And all you have and all you are will rot away to nothing. You will be nothing. You are nothing.”

“I’m nothing,” I echo, feeling helpless in the face of his words.

“You come from nothing, and it is to nothing you will return,” he whispers against my neck.

A sudden panic overtakes me. I need to get away from him. I push off the edge of the branch, but I don’t hit the ground. I just fall and fall and fall through the air, dropping like Alice down the rabbit hole.

Then the dream changes. I am on a slab of stone, wrapped in fabric. I try to get up, but I can’t move. It’s as though I am a carved doll made of wood. My eyes are open, but I can’t shift my head, can’t blink, can’t do anything. All I can do is stare at the same cloudless sky, the same sharp scythe of a moon.

Madoc comes into view, standing over me, looking down with his cat eyes. “It’s a shame,” he says, as though I am beyond hearing. “If only she stopped fighting me, I would have given her everything she ever wanted.”

“She was never an obedient girl,” says Oriana beside him. “Not like her sister.”

Taryn is there, too, a delicate tear running over her cheek. “They were only ever going to let one of us survive. It was always going to be me. You’re the sister who spits out toads and snakes. I’m the sister who spits out rubies and diamonds.”

The three of them leave. Vivi stands beside me next, pressing her long fingers to my shoulder.

“I should have saved you,” Vivi says. “It was always my job to save you.”

“My funeral will be next,” Oak whispers a moment later.

Nicasia’s voice travels, as though she is speaking from far away. “They say faeries weep at weddings and laugh at funerals, but I thought your wedding and funeral were equally funny.”

Then Cardan comes into view, a fond smile on his lips. when he speaks, he does so in a conspiratorial whisper. “when I was a child, we would stage burials, like little plays. The mortals were dead, of course, or at least they were by the end.”

At that, I can finally speak. “You’re lying,” I say.

“Of course I’m lying,” he returns. “This is your dream. Let me show you.” He presses a warm hand against my cheek. “I love you, Jude. I’ve loved you for a long time. I will never stop loving you.”

“Stop it!” I say.

Then it’s Locke standing over me, water spilling from his mouth. “Let’s be sure she’s really dead.” A moment later, he plunges a knife into my chest. It goes in over and over and over again.

At that, I wake, my face wet with tears and a scream in my throat.

I kick off my covers. Outside, it’s dark. I must have slept the whole day away. Flicking on the lights, I take deep breaths, check my brow for fever. I wait for my jangling nerves to settle. The more I think about the dream, the more disturbed I am.

I go out to the living room, where I find a pizza box open on the coffee table. Someone has placed dandelion heads beside the pepperoni on a few of the slices. Oak is trying to explain RocPet League to Taryn.

Both of them look over at me warily. “Hey,” I say to my twin. “Can I talk to you?”

“Sure,” Taryn says, getting up from the couch.

I walk back into Oak’s bedroom and perch on the edge of his bed. “I need to know if you came here because you were told to come,” I say. “I need to know if this is a trap set by the High King to lure me into violating the terms of my exile.”

Taryn looks surprised, but to her credit, she doesn’t ask me why I would think such a thing. One of her hands goes to her stomach, fingers spreading over her belly. “No,” she says. “But I didn’t tell you everything.”

I wait, unsure what she’s talking about.

“I’ve been thinking about Mom,” she says finally. “I always thought she left Elfhame because she fell in love with our mortal dad, but now I’m not so sure.”

“I don’t understand,” I say.

“I’m pregnant,” she says, her voice a whisper.

For centuries, mortals have been valued for their ability to conceive faerie children. Our blood is less sluggish than that of the Folk. Faerie women would be fortunate to bear a single child over the course of their long lives. Most never will. But a mortal wife is another matter. I knew all that, and yet it never occurred to me that Taryn and Locke would conceive a child.

“wow,” I say, my gaze going to her hand spread protectively over her stomach. “Oh.”

“No one should have the childhood we had,” she says.

Had she imagined bringing up a child in that house, with Locke messing with both of their heads? Or was it because she imagined that if she left, he might hunt her down as Madoc hunted down our mother? I am not sure. And I am not sure I should push her, either. Now that I

am better rested, I can see in her the signs of exhaustion I missed before. The red-rimmed eyes. A certain sharpness to her features that marks forgetting to eat.

I realize that she has come to us because she has nowhere else to go

—and she had to believe there was every chance I wouldn’t help her. “Did he know?” I ask finally.

“Yes,” she says, and pauses as though she’s recalling that conversation. And possibly the murder. “But I haven’t told anyone else. No one but you. And telling Locke went—well, you already heard how it went.”

I don’t know what to say to that, but when she makes a helpless gesture toward me, I come into her arms, leaning my head on her shoulder. I know there are a lot of things I ought to have told her and a lot she ought to have told me. I know we haven’t been kind. I know she’s hurt me, more than she can guess. But for all that, she’s still my sister. My widowed, murderer sister with a baby on the way.



An hour later, I am packed and ready to leave. Taryn has drilled me in the details of her day, about the Folk she talks to regularly, about the running of Locke’s estate. She has given me a pair of gloves to disguise my missing finger. She has changed out of her elegant dress of gossamer and spun glass. I am wearing it now, my hair arranged in a rough estimation of hers while she wears my black leggings and sweater.

“Thank you,” she says, a thing the Folk never say. Thanks are considered rude, trivializing the complicated dance of debt and repayment. But that’s not what mortals mean by thanking one another. That’s not what they mean at all.

Still, I shrug off her words. “No worries.”

Oak comes over to be picked up, even though at eight he is all long limbs and gangly boy body. “Squeeze hug,” he says, which means he jumps up and wraps his arms around your neck, half-strangling you. I submit to this and squeeze him back hard, slightly out of breath.

Setting him down, I pull off my ruby ring—the one Cardan stole and then returned to me during our exchange of vows. One I can definitely

not have with me while posing as Taryn. “will you keep this safe? Just until I get back.”

“I will,” Oak says solemnly. “Come back soon. I’ll miss you.”

I am surprised by his sweetness, especially after our last encounter. “Soon as I can,” I promise, pressing a kiss to his brow. Then I go to

the kitchen. Vivi is waiting for me. Together, we walk out onto the grass, where she has cultivated a small patch of ragwort.

Taryn trails after us, pulling at the sleeve of the sweater she’s wearing.

“You’re sure about this?” Vivi asks, plucking a plant at the root. I look at her, shrouded in shadows, her hair lit by the streetlamp. It usually looks brown like mine, but in the right light it is woven through with strands of a gold that is almost green.

Vivi has never hungered for Faerie as I have. How can she, when she carries it with her wherever she goes?

“You know I’m sure,” I say. “Now, are you going to tell me what happened with Heather?”

She shakes her head. “Stay alive if you want to find out.” Then she blows on the ragwort. “Steed, rise and bear my sister where she commands.” By the time the flowering stem falls to the ground, it is already changing into an emaciated yellow pony with emerald eyes and a mane of lacy fronds.

It snorts at the air and strikes the ground with its hooves, almost as eager to fly as I am.



Locke’s estate is as I remembered it—tall spires and mossy tiles, covered in a thick curtain of honeysuckle and ivy. A hedge maze crosses the grounds in a dizzying pattern. The whole place looks straight out of a fairy tale, the kind where love is a simple thing, never the cause of pain.

At night, the human world looPs as though it’s full of fallen stars. The words come to me suddenly, what Locke said when we stood together at the top of his tallest tower.

I urge the ragwort horse to land, and swing down from its back, leaving it pawing the ground as I head toward the grand front doors. They slide open at my approach. A pair of servants stand just inside,

mushroomy skin so pale that their veins are visible, giving them the appearance of a matched set of old marble statues. Small, powdery wings sag from their shoulders. They regard my approach with their cold, inkdrop eyes, recalling to me all at once the inhumanity of the Folk.

I take a deep breath and draw myself to my full height. Then I head inside.

“welcome back, my lady,” the female says. They are brother and sister, Taryn informed me. Nera and Neve. Their debt was to Locke’s father, but they were left behind when he departed, to serve out the rest of their time taking care of his son. They snuck around before, staying out of sight, but Taryn forbade them from doing so after she came to live there.

In the mortal world, I have become acclimated to thanking people for small services and now have to bite back the words. “It’s good to be home,” I say instead, and sweep past them into the hall.

It’s changed from what I remember. Before, the rooms were largely empty, and where they were not, the furniture was old and heavy, the upholstery stiff with age. The long dining table had been bare, as had been the floors. Not anymore.

Cushions and rugs, goblets and trays and half-full decanters cover every surface—all of them in a riot of colors: vermilion and umber, peacock blue and bottle green, gold and damson plum. The coverlet of a daybed is smeared with a thin golden powder, perhaps from a recent guest. I frown a moment too long, my reflection mirrored back to me in a polished silver urn.

The servants are watching, and I have no cause to study rooms with which I am supposed to be familiar. So I try to smooth out my expression. To hide that I am puzzling out the parts of Taryn’s life she didn’t tell me about.

She designed these rooms, I am sure. Her bed in Madoc’s stronghold was always massed with bright pillows. She loves beautiful things. And yet, I cannot miss that this is a place made for bacchanalia, for decadence. She spoke of hosting month-long revels, but only now do I imagine her spread out on the pillows, drunk and laughing and maybe kissing people. Maybe doing more than kissing people.

My sister, my twin, was always more lark than grackle, more shy than sensualist. Or at least I thought she was. while I walked the path

of daggers and poison, she walked the no-less-fraught path of desire.

I turn toward the stairs, unsure that I am going to pull this off after all. I go back over what I know, over the explanation that Taryn and I came up with together for the last time I saw Locke. He had been planning to meet with a selkie, I will say, with whom he was carrying on an affair. It was plausible, after all. And the Undersea had so recently been at odds with the land that I hope Folk will be inclined against them.

“will you take dinner in the grand hall?” Neve asks, trailing behind me.

“I’d prefer a tray in my room,” I say, unwilling to eat alone at that long table and be waited on in conspicuous silence.

Up I go, fairly sure I recall the way. I open a door with trepidation. For a moment, I think I am in the wrong place, but it is only that Locke’s room has changed, too. The bed is bedecked in curtains embroidered with foxes stalking through tall trees. A low divan sits in front of the bed, where a few gowns are scattered, and a small desk is cluttered with paper and pens.

I go to Taryn’s dressing chamber and look at her dresses—a collection less riotous in color than the furnishings she chose, but no less beautiful. I choose a shift and a heavy satin robe to wear over it, then strip off her dress of gossamer and glass.

The fabric shivers against my skin. I stand in front of the mirror in her bedroom and comb out my hair. I stare at myself, trying to see what might give me away. I am more muscular, but clothes can hide that. My hair is shorter, but not by much. And then, of course, there’s my temper.

“Greetings, Your Majesty,” I say, trying to imagine myself in the High Court again. what would Taryn do? I sink into a low curtsy. “It’s been too long.”

Of course, Taryn probably saw him quite recently. For her, it hasn’t been long at all. Panic drums in my chest. I am going to have to do more than answer questions at the inquest. I am going to have to pretend that I am a cordial acquaintance of High King Cardan to his face. I fix myself with a look in the mirror, trying to summon the correct expression of deference, trying not to scowl. “Greetings, Your Majesty,

you betraying toad.”

No, that wouldn’t work, no matter how good it felt.

“Greetings, Your Majesty,” I try again. “I didn’t kill my husband, even though he richly deserved it.”

There is a knock on the door, and I startle.

Nera has brought a large wooden tray, which he sets on the bed and then departs with a bow, barely making a sound as he goes. On it are toast and a marmalade with a cloying, strange scent that makes my mouth water. It takes longer than it ought for me to realize it’s faerie fruit. And they’ve brought it as though it’s nothing to Taryn, as though she eats it regularly. Did Locke give it to her without her knowing? Or did she take it deliberately, as a sort of recreational blurring of the senses? Once again, I am lost.

At least there’s also a pot of nettle tea, soft cheese, and three hard- boiled duck eggs. It’s a simple dinner, other than the weirdness of the faerie fruit.

I drink the tea and eat the eggs and toast. The marmalade, I hide in a napkin that I tuck in the very back of the closet. If Taryn finds it moldering weeks from now, well, that’s a small price to pay for the favor she’s getting out of me.

I look at the dresses again, try to choose one for the day ahead. Nothing whimsical. My husband is supposed to be dead, and I am supposed to be sad. Unfortunately, while Taryn’s commissions for me were almost entirely black, her own closet is empty of the color. I push past silk and satin, past brocade in the pattern of forests with animals peeking out from between the leaves, and embroidered velvets of sage green and sky blue. Finally, I settle on a dark bronze dress and drag it over to the divan, along with a pair of midnight blue gloves. I rifle through her jewelry box and pull out the earrings I gave her. One a moon, the other a star, crafted by the master smith Grimsen, magicked to make the wearer more beautiful.

I itch to sneak out of Locke’s demesne and back into the Court of Shadows. I want nothing more than to visit the Roach and the Bomb, to hear gossip from the Court, to be in those familiar underground rooms. But those rooms are gone—destroyed by the Ghost when he betrayed us to the Undersea. I don’t know where the Court of Shadows operates out of now.

And I can’t risk it.

Opening the window, I sit at Taryn’s desk and sip nettle tea, drinking in the sharp salt scent of the sea and the wild honeysuckle and the

distant breeze through fir trees. I take a deep breath, at home and homesick all at the same time.

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