Chapter no 7

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

I‌am furious as I walk through the corridors of the palace, steps behind Cardan, followed by his guard to keep me from trying to slip away.

My choices now are not good.

He will take me back to his enormous chambers and then what? will he force a guard to hold me and divest me of anything that might protect me from glamour—jewelry, clothing—until I am stripped bare? If so, he cannot fail to notice my scars, scars he has seen before. And if he peels off my gloves, there can be no doubt. The missing half digit will give me away.

If I am undressed, he will know me.

I am going to have to make a break for it. There’s the secret passageway in his rooms. From there, I can get out through one of the crystal windows.

I glance at the guards. If they were dismissed, I could get past Cardan, through the secret passageway, and out. But how to get rid of them?

I consider the smile Cardan wore on the dais when he announced what he was going to do to me. Maybe he wants to see Taryn naked. He desired me, after all, and Taryn and I are identical. Perhaps if I volunteer to undress myself, he’ll agree to dismiss his guard. He did say he’d examine me alone.

which leads me to an even more daring thought. Maybe I could distract him thoroughly enough that he wouldn’t know me at all.

Perhaps I could blow out the candles and be naked only in the half light. …

Those thoughts occupy me so completely that I barely notice a hooved servant carrying a tray supporting a carafe of a pale celery- green wine and a collection of blown-glass goblets. She is coming from the opposite direction, and when we pass, the tray digs into my side. She gives a cry, I feel a shove, and we both tumble to the floor, glass shattering around us.

The guards halt. Cardan turns. I look over at the girl, baffled and surprised. My dress is soaked with wine. The Folk are seldom clumsy, and this doesn’t feel like an accident. Then the girl’s fingers touch one of my gloved hands. I feel the press of leather and steel against the inside of my wrist. She is pushing a sheathed knife up my sleeve under cover of cleaning up the spilled contents of the tray. Her head dips close to mine as she brushes shards of glass from my hair.

“Your father is coming for you,” she whispers. “wait for a signal.

Then stab the guard closest to the door and run.”

“what signal?” I whisper back, pretending to help her sweep up the debris.

“Oh no, my lady, your pardon,” she says in a normal voice with a bob of her head. “You ought not lower yourself.”

One of the High King’s personal guard catches my arm. “Come along,” he says, lifting me to my feet. I press my hands to my heart to keep the knife from slipping out my sleeve.

I resume my walk toward Cardan’s rooms, my thoughts thrown into even more confusion.

Madoc is coming to save Taryn. It’s a reminder that while I am no longer in his good graces, she helped him wriggle out of his vows of service to the High King. She gave him half an army. I wonder what plans he has for her, what rewards he’s promised. I imagine he will be pleased to have her no longer encumbered with Locke.

But when Madoc comes, what’s his plan? whom is he expecting to fight? And what will he do when he comes for her and finds me instead?

Two servants open heavy double doors to the High King’s chambers, and he goes inside, throwing himself down on a low couch. I follow, standing awkwardly in the middle of the carpet. None of the guards so much as enter his chambers. As soon as I step over the threshold, the

doors shut behind me, this time with a grim finality. I don’t have to worry about persuading Cardan to dismiss the guard; they never lingered.

At least I have a knife.

The parlor is as I remember it from Council meetings. It carries the scent of smoke and verbena and clover. Cardan himself lounges, his booted feet resting on a stone table carved in the shape of a griffin, claws raised to strike. He gives me a quicksilver, conspiratorial grin that seems completely at odds with the way he spoke to me from his throne.

“well,” he says, patting the couch beside him. “Didn’t you get my letters?”

“what?” I am confused enough that the word comes out like a croak. “You never replied to a one,” he goes on. “I began to wonder if you’d

misplaced your ambition in the mortal world.” This must be a test. This must be a trap.

“Your Majesty,” I say stiffly. “I thought you brought me here to assure yourself I had neither charm nor amulet.”

A single eyebrow rises, and his smile deepens. “I will if you like. Shall I command you to remove your clothes? I don’t mind.”

“what are you doing?” I say finally, desperately. “what are you playing at?”

He’s looking at me as though somehow I am the one who’s behaving strangely. “Jude, you can’t really think I don’t know it’s you. I knew you from the moment you walked into the brugh.”

I shake my head, reeling. “That’s not possible.” If he knew it was me, then I wouldn’t be here. I would be imprisoned in the Tower of Forgetting. I would be preparing for my execution.

But maybe he’s pleased I violated the terms of the exile. Maybe he’s glad I put myself in his power by doing so. Maybe that’s his game.

He stands up from the couch, his gaze intense. “Come closer.” I take a step backward.

He frowns. “My councilors told me that you met with an ambassador from the Court of Teeth, that you must be working with Madoc now. I was unwilling to believe it, but seeing the way you look at me, perhaps I must. Tell me it’s not true.”

For a moment, I don’t understand, but then I do. Grima Mog. “I’m not the betrayer here,” I say, but I am suddenly conscious of the blade in

my sleeve.

“Are you angry about—” He cuts himself off, looking at my face more carefully. “No, you’re afraid. But why would you be afraid of me?”

I am trembling with a feeling that I barely understand. “I’m not,” I lie. “I hate you. You sent me into exile. Everything you say to me, everything you promise, it’s all a trick. And I, stupid enough to believe you once.” The sheathed knife slides easily to my hand.

“Of course it was a trick—” he begins, then sees the weapon and bites off whatever he was about to say.

Everything shakes. An explosion, close by and intense enough that we both stumble. Books fall and scatter over the floor. Crystal orbs slip off their stands to roll across floorboards. Cardan and I look at each other in shared surprise. Then his eyes narrow in accusation.

This is the part where I am supposed to stab him and run.

A moment later, there’s the unmistakable sound of metal striking metal. Close by.

“Stay here,” I say, drawing the blade and tossing the sheath onto the ground.

“Jude, don’t—” he calls after me as I slip into the hall.

One of his guard lies dead, a polearm jutting out of her rib cage. Others clash with Madoc’s handpicked soldiers, battle-hardened and deadly. I know them, know that they fight without pity, without mercy, and if they’ve made it this close to the High King, Cardan is in terrible danger.

I think again of the passageway I was planning to slip through. I can get him out that way—in exchange for a pardon. Either Cardan can end my exile and live or hope his guard wins against Madoc’s soldiers. I am about to head back to put that deal to him when one of the helmeted soldiers grabs hold of me.

“I have Taryn,” she calls gruffly. I recognize her: Silja. Part huldra and entirely terrifying. I’d seen her carve up a partridge in a way that made her delight in slaughter very clear.

I stab at her hand, but the thick hide of her gloves turns my blade. A steel-covered arm wraps around my waist.

“Daughter,” Madoc says in his gravelly voice. “Daughter, don’t be afraid—”

His hand comes up with a cloth smelling of cloying sweetness. He presses it over my nose and mouth. I feel my limbs go loose, and a

moment later, I feel nothing at all.

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