Chapter no 6

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

T‌he inquest is set to happen when the first of the stars is visible in the sky. I arrive at the High Court in Taryn’s bronze dress, with a shawl over my shoulders, gloves on my fingers, and my hair swept into a loose chignon. My heart races, and I hope that no one can sense the nervous sweat starting under my arms.

As the High King’s seneschal, I was accorded a certain kind of deference. Although I lived eight years in Elfhame without it, I got very used to it very quickly.

As Taryn, I am watched with suspicion when I push my way through a crowd that no longer automatically parts for me. She is the daughter of a traitor, the sister of an outcast, and the suspected murderer of her husband. Their gazes are greedy, as though they hope for the spectacle of her guilt and punishment. But they still are not afraid of her. Even with her alleged crime, they see her as a mortal and weak.

Good, I suppose. The weaker she seems, the more believable her innocence.

My gaze darts away from the dais even as I move toward it. High King Cardan’s presence seems to infect the very air I breathe. For a wild moment, I consider turning and getting out of there before he spots me.

I don’t know if I can do this. I feel a little dizzy.

I don’t know if I can look at him and not show on my face any of what I am feeling.

I take a deep breath and let it out again, reminding myself that he won’t know I’m the one standing in front of him. He didn’t recognize Taryn when she dressed in my clothes, and he won’t recognize me now. 9lus, I tell myself, if you don’t pull this off, you and Taryn are both in a lot

of trouble.

I am suddenly reminded of all the reasons Vivi told me this was a bad idea. She’s right. This is ridiculous. I am supposed to be exiled until such time as I am pardoned by the crown, on pain of death.

It occurs to me that maybe he made a mistake with that phrasing. Maybe I can pardon myself. But then I remember when I insisted I was the Queen of Faerie, and the guards laughed. Cardan didn’t need to deny me. He only had to say nothing. And if I pardoned myself, he would only have to say nothing again.

No, if he recognizes me, I will have to run and hide and hope that my training with the Court of Shadows wins out over the training of the guard. But then the Court will know that Taryn is guilty—otherwise, why have me stand in her stead? And if I don’t manage to escape …

Idly, I wonder what sort of execution Cardan might order. Maybe he’d strap me to some rocks and let the sea do the work. Nicasia would like that. If he’s not in the mood, though, there’s also beheading, hanging, exsanguination, drawn and quartered, fed whole to a riding toad …

“Taryn Duarte,” says a knight, interrupting my morose thoughts. His voice is cold, his chased silver armor marking him as one of Cardan’s personal guard. “wife of Locke. You must stand in the place of petitioners.”

I move there, disoriented at the thought of standing where I had seen so many before when I was the seneschal. Then I remember myself and make the deep curtsy of someone comfortable with submission to the High King’s will. Since I cannot do that while looking at his face, I make sure that I keep my gaze on the ground.

“Taryn?” Cardan asks, and the sound of his voice, the familiarity of it, is shocking.

with no more excuses, I raise my eyes to his.

He is even more horrifically beautiful than I was able to recall. They’re all beautiful, unless they’re hideous. That’s the nature of the Folk. Our mortal minds cannot conceive of them; our memory blunts their power.

His every finger sparks with a ring. An etched and jeweled breastplate in polished gold hangs from his shoulders, covering a frothy white shirt. Boots curl up at his toes and rise high over his knees. His tail is visible, curled to one side of his leg. I suppose he has decided it is no longer something he needs to hide. At his brow, of course, is the Blood Crown.

He regards me with gold-rimmed black eyes, a smirk hovering at the corners of his mouth. His black hair tumbles around his face, unbound and a little messy, as though he’s recently risen from someone’s bed.

I can’t stop marveling at how I once had power over him, over the High King of Faerie. How I once was arrogant enough to believe I could keep it.

I remember the slide of his mouth on mine. I remember how he tricked me.

“Your Majesty,” I say, because I have to say something and because everything I practiced began with that.

“we recognize your grief,” he says, sounding annoyingly regal. “we would not disturb your mourning were it not for questions over the cause of your husband’s death.”

“Do you really think she’s sad?” asks Nicasia. She is standing beside a woman it takes me a moment to place: Cardan’s mother, Lady Asha, done up in a silvery dress, jeweled tips covering the points of her horns. Lady Asha’s face has been highlighted in silver as well—silver along her cheekbones and shining on her lips. Nicasia, meanwhile, wears the colors of the sea. Her gown is the green of kelp, deep and rich. Her aqua hair is braided up and adorned with a cunning crown made of fish bones and jaws.

At least neither of them is on the dais beside the High King. The position of seneschal appears still to be open.

I want to snap at Nicasia, but Taryn wouldn’t, so I don’t. I say nothing, cursing myself for knowing what Taryn wouldn’t do, but being less sure what she would.

Nicasia steps closer, and I am surprised to see sorrow in her face. Locke was her friend, once, and her lover. I don’t think he was particularly good at either, but I guess that doesn’t mean she wanted him dead. “Did you kill Locke yourself?” she asks. “Or did you get your sister to do it for you?”

“Jude is in exile,” I say, my words coming out dangerously soft instead of the regular kind of soft they were intended to be. “And I’ve never hurt Locke.”

“No?” Cardan says, leaning forward on his throne. Vines shiver behind him. His tail twitches.

“I lov …” I can’t quite make my mouth say the words, but they are waiting. I force them out and try to force out a little sob, too. “I loved him.”

“Sometimes I believed that you did, yes,” Cardan says absently. “But you could well be lying. I am going to put a glamour on you. All it will do is force you to tell us the truth.” He curves his hand, and magic shimmers in the air.

I feel nothing. Such is the power of Dain’s geas, I suppose. Not even the High King’s glamour can ensorcell me.

“Now,” says Cardan. “Tell me only the truth. what is your name?” “Taryn Duarte,” I say with a curtsy, grateful at how easy the lie

comes. “Daughter of Madoc, wife of Locke, subject of the High King of Elfhame.”

His mouth curves. “what fine courtly manners.”

“I was well instructed.” He ought to know. we were instructed together.

“Did you murder Locke?” he asks. Around me, the hum of conversation slows. There are no songs, little laughter, few clinks of cups. The Folk are intent, wondering if I am about to confess.

“No,” I say, and give a pointed look to Nicasia. “Nor did I orchestrate his death. Perhaps we ought to look to the sea, where he was found.”

Nicasia turns her attention to Cardan. “we know that Jude murdered Balekin. She confessed as much. And I have long suspected her of killing Valerian. If Taryn isn’t the culprit, then Jude must be. Queen Orlagh, my mother, swore a truce with you. what possible gain could she have from the murder of your Master of Revels? She knew he was your friend—and mine.” Her voice breaks at the end, although she tries to mask it. Her grief is obviously genuine.

I try to summon tears. It would be useful to cry right now, but standing in front of Cardan, I cannot weep.

He peers down at me, black brows drawn together. “well, what do you think? Did your sister do it? And don’t tell me what I already know. Yes, I sent Jude into exile. That may or may not have deterred her.”

I wish I could punch him in his smug face and show him how undeterred I am by his exile. “She had no reason to hate Locke,” I lie. “I don’t think she wished him ill.”

“Is that so?” Cardan says.

“Perhaps it is only Court gossip, but there is a popular tale about you, your sister, and Locke,” Lady Asha ventures. “She loved him, but he chose you. Some sisters cannot bear to see the other happy.”

Cardan glances at his mother. I wonder what has drawn her to Nicasia, unless it is only that they are both awful. And I wonder what Nicasia makes of her. Orlagh might be a ferocious and terrifying Queen of the Undersea, and I never want to spend another moment in her presence, but I believe she cherishes Nicasia. Surely Nicasia would expect more of Cardan’s mother than the thin gruel of emotion she has served her son.

“Jude never loved Locke.” My face feels hot, but my shame is an excellent cover to hide behind. “She loved someone else. He’s the one she’d want dead.”

I am pleased to see Cardan flinch. “Enough,” he says before I can go on. “I have heard all I care to on this subject—”

“No!” Nicasia interrupts, causing everyone under the hill to stir a little. It is immense presumption to interrupt the High King. Even for a princess. Especially for an ambassador. A moment after she speaks, she seems to realize it, but she goes on anyway. “Taryn could have a charm on her, something that makes her resistant to glamours.”

Cardan gives Nicasia a scathing look. He does not like her undermining his authority. And yet, after a moment, his anger gives way to something else. He gives me one of his most awful smiles. “I suppose she’ll have to be searched.”

Nicasia’s mouth curves to match his. It feels like being back at lessons on the palace grounds, conspired against by the children of the Gentry.

I recall the more recent humiliation of being crowned the Queen of Mirth, stripped in front of revelers. If they take my gown now, they will see the bandages on my arms, the fresh slashes on my skin for which I have no good explanation. They will guess I am not Taryn.

I can’t let that happen. I summon all the dignity I can muster, trying to imitate my stepmother, Oriana, and the way she projects authority. “My husband was murdered,” I say. “And whether or not you believe

me, I do mourn him. I will not make a spectacle of myself for the Court’s amusement when his body is barely cold.”

Unfortunately, the High King’s smile only grows. “As you wish. Then I suppose I will have to examine you alone in my chambers.”

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