Chapter no 9

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

W‌e dine in the tent of the Court of Teeth, which is easily three times the size of Madoc’s and decorated as elaborately as any palace. The floor is covered in rugs and furs. Lamps hang from the ceilings, and fat pillar candles burn atop tables beside decanters of some pale libation and bowls of frost-covered white berries of a type I have never seen before. A harpist plays in a corner, the strains of her music carrying through the buzz of conversation.

At the center of the tent rests three thrones—two large and one small. They seem to be sculptures of ice, with flowers and leaves frozen inside them. The large thrones are unoccupied, but a blue-skinned girl sits on the small one, a crown of icicles on her head and a golden bridle around her mouth and throat. She looks to be only a year or two older than Oak and is dressed in a column of gray silk. Her gaze is on her fingers, which move restlessly against one another. Her nails are bitten short and crusted with a thin rime of blood.

If she is the princess, then it is not hard to pick out the king and queen. They wear even more elaborate icicle crowns. Their skin is gray, the color of stone or corpses. Their eyes are a bright and clear yellow, like wine. And their garments are the blue of her skin. A matching trio.

“This is Lady Nore and Lord Jarel and their daughter, Queen Suren,” Oriana says to me quietly. So the little girl is the ruler?

Unfortunately, Lady Nore notices my staring. “A mortal,” she says with a familiar contempt. “whatever for?”

Madoc shoots an apologetic look in my direction. “Allow me to present one of my foster daughters, Taryn. I am sure I mentioned her.”

“Perhaps,” says Lord Jarel, joining us. His gaze is intense, the way an owl looks at a misguided mouse climbing directly into its nest.

I give my best curtsy. “I am glad to have a place at your hearth tonight.”

He turns his cold gaze on Madoc. “Diverting. It speaks as though it thinks it’s one of us.”

I forgot how it felt, all those years of being utterly powerless. Having Madoc alone for protection. And now that protection depends on his not guessing which of his daughters stands beside him. I look up at Lord Jarel with fear in my eyes, fear I don’t have to fake. And I hate how obviously it pleases him.

I think of the Bomb’s words about what the Court of Teeth did to her and to the Roach: The Court carved us up and filled us full of curses and geases. Changed us. Forced us to serve them.

I remind myself I am no longer the girl I was before. I might be surrounded, but that doesn’t mean I’m powerless. I vow that one day it is Lord Jarel who will be afraid.

But for now, I edge myself toward a corner, where I sit on a hide- covered tuffet and survey the room. I recall the Living Council warning that Courts were evading swearing fealty by hiding their children as changelings in the mortal world, then elevating them to rulers. I wonder if that’s what’s happened here. If so, it must gall Lord Jarel and Lady Nore to give up their titles. And make them nervous enough to bridle her.

Interesting to see their ostentation on display—their crowns and thrones and luxurious tent—as they support Madoc’s bid to elevate himself to High King, which would put him far above them. I don’t buy it. They might back him now, but I bet they hope to eliminate him later. It is then that Grimsen enters the tent, wearing a scarlet cloak with an enormous pin in the shape of a metal-and-blown-glass heart that seems to beat. Lady Nore and Lord Jarel turn their attention to him,

their stiff faces moving to chilly smiles.

I look over at Madoc. He appears less pleased to see the smith.

After a few more pleasantries, Lady Nore and Lord Jarel usher us to the table. Lady Nore leads Queen Suren by her bridle. As the child queen is led to the table, I notice that the straps sit oddly against her

skin, as though they have partially sunken into it. Something in the shimmer of the leather makes me think of enchantment.

I wonder if this horrible thing is Grimsen’s work.

Seeing her bound, I can’t help but think about Oak. I glance at Oriana, wondering if she’s reminded of him, too, but her expression is as calm and remote as the surface of a frozen lake.

we go to the table. I am seated beside Oriana, across the table from Grimsen. He spots the sun-and-moon earrings I am still wearing and gestures at them.

“I wasn’t sure your sister would give those up,” he says.

I lean in and touch my gloved fingers to my earlobes. “Your work is exquisite,” I tell him, knowing how fond he is of flattery.

He gives me an admiring look that I suspect is pride in his own art. If he finds me pretty, it’s a compliment to his craft.

But it’s also to my advantage to keep him talking. No one else here is likely to tell me much. I try to imagine what Taryn might say, but all I can come up with is more of what I think Grimsen wants to hear. I drop my voice to a whisper. “I can hardly bear to take them off, even at night.”

He preens. “Mere trinkets.”

“You must think I am very silly,” I say. “I know you have made far greater things, but these have made me very happy.”

Oriana gives me an odd look. Did I make a mistake? Does she suspect me? My heart speeds.

“You ought to visit my forge,” Grimsen says. “Allow me to show you what truly potent magic looks like.”

“I should like that very much,” I manage, but I am distracted with worry over being caught and frustrated by the smith’s invitation. If only he’d been willing to brag here, tonight, instead of setting up some assignation! I don’t want to go to his forge. I want to get out of this camp. It is only a matter of time before I’m caught. If I am to learn anything, I need to do it quickly.

My frustration mounts as further conversation is cut off by the arrival of servants bringing dinner, which turns out to be a massive cut of roasted bear meat, served with cloudberries. One of the soldiers draws Grimsen into a discussion about his brooch. Beside me, Oriana is speaking of a poem I don’t know to a courtier from the Court of Teeth. Left to myself, I concentrate on picking out the voices of Madoc and

Lady Nore. They are debating which Courts can be brought over to their side.

“Have you spoken with the Court of Termites?”

Madoc nods. “Lord Roiben is wroth with the Undersea, and he cannot like that the High King denied him his revenge.”

My fingers clench on my knife. I made a deal with Roiben. I killed Balekin to honor it. That was Cardan’s excuse for exiling me. It is a bitter draught to consider that after all that, Lord Roiben might prefer to join with Madoc.

But whatever Lord Roiben wants, he still swore an oath of loyalty to the Blood Crown. And while some Courts—like the Court of Teeth—may have schemed their way free of their ancestors’ promises, most are still bound by them. Including Roiben. So how does Madoc think he is going to dissolve those bonds? without some means of doing that, it doesn’t matter whom the low Courts prefer. They must follow the only ruler with the Blood Crown on his head: High King Cardan.

But since Taryn would say none of that, I bite my tongue as the conversations swirl around me. Later, back at our tent, I carry pitchers of honey wine and refill the cups of Madoc’s generals. I am not particularly memorable—merely Madoc’s human daughter, someone most of them have met in passing and thought little upon. Oriana gives me no more odd looks. If she thought my behavior with Grimsen was strange, I don’t think I have given her further reason to doubt me.

I feel the gravitational pull of my old role, the ease of it, ready to enfold me like a heavy blanket.

Tonight it seems impossible that I was ever anyone other than this dutiful child.

when I go to sleep, it is with a bitterness in my throat, one I haven’t felt in a long time, one that comes from not being able to affect the things that matter, even though they are happening right in front of me.

I wake on the cot, loaded with blankets and furs. I drink strong tea near the fire, walking around to loosen my limbs. To my relief, Madoc has already gone.

Today, I tell myself, today I must find a way out of here.

I’d noticed horses when we made our way through the camp. I could probably steal one. But I am an indifferent rider, and without a map, I

could quickly become lost. Those are probably kept all together in a war tent. Perhaps I could invent a reason to visit my father.

“Do you think Madoc would like some tea?” I ask Oriana hopefully. “If so, he can send a servant to prepare it,” she tells me kindly. “But

there are many useful tasks to occupy your time. we Court ladies gather and stitch banners, if you’re feeling up to it.”

Nothing will give away my identity faster than my needlecraft. To call it poor is flattery.

“I don’t think I’m ready to answer questions about Locke,” I warn. She nods sympathetically. Gossip passes the time at such gatherings,

and it’s not unreasonable to think a dead husband would provoke talk. “You may take a little basket and go foraging,” she suggests. “Just be

careful to stay to the woods and away from the camp. If you see sentries, show them Madoc’s sigil.”

I try to contain my eagerness. “I can do that.”

As I draw on a borrowed cloak, she puts a hand on my arm.

“I heard you speaking with Grimsen last night,” Oriana says. “You must be careful of him.” I recall her many cautions over the years at revels. She made us promise not to dance, not to eat anything, not to do anything that could result in embarrassment for Madoc. It’s not that she doesn’t have her reasons, either. Before she was Madoc’s wife, she was High King Eldred’s lover and saw another of his lovers—and her dear friend—poisoned. But it’s still annoying.

“I will. I’ll be careful,” I say.

Oriana looks into my eyes. “Grimsen wants many things. If you are too kind, he may decide he wants you, too. He could desire you for your loveliness as one covets a rare jewel. Or he could desire you just to see if Madoc would give you up.”

“I understand,” I say, trying to seem like someone she doesn’t need to worry over.

She lets go of me with a wan smile, seeming to believe we understand each other.

Outside, I head toward the woods with my little basket. Once I hit the tree line, I stop, overwhelmed with the relief of no longer playing a role. For a moment, here, I can relax. I take some steadying breaths and consider my options. Again and again, I come back to Grimsen. Despite Oriana’s warning, he’s my best bet to find a way out of here. with all his magic trinkets, maybe he’s got a pair of metal wings to fly me home or

a magical sled pulled by obsidian lions. Even if not, at least he doesn’t know Taryn well enough to doubt that I’m her.

And if he wants something that I don’t want to give him, well, he has a bad habit of leaving knives just lying about.

I hike through the woods to higher ground. From there, I can see the camp and all its pavilions. I spot the makeshift forge, set back from everything else, smoke rising in great quantities from its three chimneys. I spot an area of the camp where a large, round tent is a hub of activity. Maybe that’s where Madoc is and where the maps are.

And I spot something else. when I first took stock of the camp, I noticed a small outpost at the base of the mountain, far from the other tents. But from here I can see there’s also a cave. Two guards stand as sentries by the entrance.

Odd, that. It seems inconveniently far from everything else. But depending on what’s in there, maybe that’s the point. It’s far enough to muffle even the loudest of screams.

with a shudder, I head down toward the forge.

I get a few looks from goblins and grigs and sharp-toothed members of the Folk with powdery wings as I cut through the outer edge of the camp. I hear a little hiss as I pass, and one of the ogres licks his lips in what is not at all a come-on. No one stops me, though.

The door to Grimsen’s forge is propped open, and I see the smith inside, shirtless, his wiry, hairy form bent over the blade he’s hammering. The forge is scorchingly hot, the air thick with heat, stinking of creosote. Around him are an array of weapons and trinkets that are far more than what they seem: little metal boats, brooches, silver heels for boots, a key that looks as though it was carved from crystal.

I think of the offer Grimsen wanted me to convey to Cardan before he decided greater glory lay in betrayal: I will maPe him armor of ice to shatter every blade that striPes it and that will maPe his heart too cold to feel pity. Tell him I will maPe him three swords that, when used in the same battle, will fight with the might of thirty soldiers.

I hate to think of all that in Madoc’s hands. Steeling myself, I knock on the doorframe.

Grimsen spots me and puts down his hammer. “The girl with the earrings,” he says.

“You invited me to come,” I remind him. “I hope this isn’t too soon, but I was so curious. Can I ask what you’re making, or is it a secret?”

That seems to please him. He indicates with a smile the enormous bar of metal he’s working on. “I am crafting a sword to crack the firmament of the isles. what do you think of that, mortal girl?”

On one hand, Grimsen has forged some of the greatest weapons ever made. But can Madoc’s plan truly be to cut through the armies of Elfhame? I think of Cardan, causing the sea to boil, storms to come, and trees to wither. Cardan, who has the sworn loyalty of dozens of low Court rulers and the command of all their armies. Can any one sword be great enough to stand against that, even if it is the greatest blade Grimsen has ever forged?

“Madoc must be grateful to have you on his side,” I say neutrally. “And to have such a weapon promised to him.”

“Hmph,” he says, fixing me with a beady eye. “He ought to be, but is he? You’d have to ask him yourself, since he makes no mention of gratitude. And if they happen to make songs about me, well, is he interested in hearing them? No. No time for songs, he says. I wonder if he’d feel differently if there were songs about him.”

Apparently, it wasn’t encouraging his bragging that got him to talk, but stoking his resentment.

“If he becomes the next High King, there will be plenty of songs about him,” I say, pressing the point.

A cloud passes over Grimsen’s face, his mouth moving into a slight expression of disgust.

“But you, who has been a master smith through Mab’s reign and all those who followed, your story must be more interesting than his— better fodder for ballads.” I fear I am laying it on too thick, but he brightens.

“Ah, Mab,” he says, reminiscing. “when she came to me to forge the Blood Crown, she entrusted me with a great honor. And I cursed it to protect it for all time.”

I smile encouragingly. I know this part. “The murder of the wearer causes death for the person responsible.”

He snorts. “I want my worP to endure just as Queen Mab wanted her line to endure. But I care for even the least of my creations.” He reaches out to touch the earrings with his sooty fingers. He brushes the lobe of

my ear, his skin warm and rough. I duck out of his grasp with what I hope is a demure laugh and not a snarl.

“Take these, for example,” he says. “Prize out the gems, and your beauty would fade—not just the extra smidge they grant, but all your beauty, until you were so wretched that the sight of you would set even the Folk to screaming.”

I try to control the urge to rip the earrings from my ears. “You cursed them, too?”

His grin is sly. “Not everyone is properly respectful of a craftsman the way you are, Taryn, daughter of Madoc. Not everyone deserves my gifts.”

I ponder that for a long moment, wondering at the array of creations that have come from his forge. wondering how many of them were cursed.

“Is that why you were exiled?” I ask.

“The High Queen disliked my taking quite so much artistic license, so I was not much in favor when I followed the Alderking into exile,” he says, and I figure that means yes, pretty much. “She liked to be the clever one.”

I nod, as though there is nothing at all alarming about that story. My mind is racing, trying to recall all the things he’s made. “Didn’t you gift an earring to Cardan when you first came to Elfhame?”

“You have a good memory,” he says. Hopefully, I have a better memory than he does, because Taryn didn’t attend the Blood Moon revel. “It allowed him to overhear those speaking just outside of range. A wonderful device for eavesdropping.”

I wait expectantly.

He laughs. “That’s not what you want to know, is it? Yes, it was cursed. with a word, I could turn it into a ruby spider that would bite him until he died.”

“Did you use it?” I ask, recalling the globe I saw in Cardan’s study, in which a glittering red spider scrabbled restlessly at the glass. I am filled with cold horror at a tragedy already averted—and then blinding anger.

Grimsen shrugs. “He’s still alive, isn’t he?”

A very faerie answer. It sounds like no, when the truth is that the smith tried and it didn’t worP.

I ought to press him for more, ought to ask him about a way for me to escape the camp, but I can’t bear to speak with him for another minute and not stab him with one of his own weapons. “Can I visit again?” I grit out, the false smile I am wearing feeling a lot more like a grimace.

I don’t like the look he gives me, as though I am a gemstone he wishes to set into metal. “I would like that,” he says, sweeping his hand around the forge, at all the objects there. “As you can see, I like beautiful things.”

You'll Also Like