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

T‌he Royal Astrologer, Baphen, squinted at the star chart and tried not to flinch when it seemed sure the youngest prince of Elfhame was about to be dropped on his royal head.‌

A week after Prince Cardan’s birth and he was finally being presented to the High King. The previous five heirs had been seen immediately, still squalling in ruddy newness, but Lady Asha had barred the High King from visiting before she felt herself suitably restored from childbed.

The baby was thin and wizened, silent, staring at Eldred with black eyes. He lashed his little whiplike tail with such force that his swaddle threatened to come apart. Lady Asha seemed unsure how to cradle him. Indeed, she held him as though she hoped someone might take the burden from her very soon.

“Tell us of his future,” the High King prompted. Only a few Folk were gathered to witness the presentation of the new prince—the mortal Val Moren, who was both Court Poet and Seneschal, and two members of the Living Council: Randalin, the Minister of Keys, and Baphen. In the empty hall, the High King’s words echoed.

Baphen hesitated, but he could do nothing save answer. Eldred had been favored with five children before Prince Cardan, shocking fecundity among the Folk, with their thin blood and few births. The stars had spoken of each little prince’s and princess’s fated accomplishments in poetry and song, in politics, in virtue, and even in vice. But this time what he’d seen in the stars had been entirely

different. “Prince Cardan will be your last born child,” the Royal Astrologer said. “He will be the destruction of the crown and the ruination of the throne.”

Lady Asha sucked in a sharp breath. For the first time, she drew the child protectively closer. He squirmed in her arms. “I wonder who has influenced your interpretation of the signs. Perhaps Princess Elowyn had a hand in it. Or Prince Dain.”

Maybe it would be better if she dropped him, Baphen thought unkindly.

High King Eldred ran a hand over his chin. “Can nothing be done to stop this?”

It was a mixed blessing to have the stars supply Baphen with so many riddles and so few answers. He often wished he saw things more clearly, but not this time. He bowed his head so he had an excuse not to meet the High King’s gaze. “Only out of his spilled blood can a great ruler rise, but not before what I have told you comes to pass.”

Eldred turned to Lady Asha and her child, the harbinger of ill luck. The baby was as silent as a stone, not crying or cooing, tail still lashing.

“Take the boy away,” the High King said. “Rear him as you see fit.”

Lady Asha did not flinch. “I will rear him as befits his station. He is a prince, after all, and your son.”

There was a brittleness in her tone, and Baphen was uncomfortably reminded that some prophecies are fulfilled by the very actions meant to prevent them.

For a moment, everyone stood silent. Then Eldred nodded to Val Moren, who left the dais and returned holding a slim wooden box with a pattern of roots traced over the lid.

“A gift,” said the High King, “in recognition of your contribution to the Greenbriar line.”

Val Moren opened the box, revealing an exquisite necklace of heavy emeralds. Eldred lifted them and placed them over Lady Asha’s head. He touched her cheek with the back of one hand.

“Your generosity is great, my lord,” she said, somewhat mollified. The baby clutched a stone in his little fist, staring up at his father with fathomless eyes.

“Go now and rest,” said Eldred, his voice softer. This time, she yielded.

Lady Asha departed with her head high, her grip on the child tighter. Baphen felt a shiver of some premonition that had nothing to do with


High King Eldred did not visit Lady Asha again, nor did he call her to him. Perhaps he ought to have put his dissatisfaction aside and cultivated his son. But looking upon Prince Cardan was like looking into an uncertain future, and so he avoided it.

Lady Asha, as the mother of a prince, found herself much in demand with the Court, if not the High King. Given to whimsy and frivolity, she wished to return to the merry life of a courtier. She couldn’t attend balls with an infant in tow, so she found a cat whose kittens were stillborn to act as his wet nurse.

That arrangement lasted until Prince Cardan was able to crawl. By then, the cat was heavy with a new litter and he’d begun to pull at her tail. She fled to the stables, abandoning him, too.

And so he grew up in the palace, cherished by no one and checked by no one. who would dare stop a prince from stealing food from the grand tables and eating beneath them, devouring what he’d taken in savage bites? His sisters and brothers only laughed, playing with him as they would with a puppy.

He wore clothes only occasionally, donning garlands of flowers instead and throwing stones when the guard tried to come near him. None but his mother exerted any hold over him, and she seldom tried to curb his excesses. Just the opposite.

“You’re a prince,” she told him firmly when he would shy away from a conflict or fail to make a demand. “Everything is yours. You have only to take it.” And sometimes: “I want that. Get it for me.”

It is said that faerie children are not like mortal children. They need little in the way of love. They need not be tucked in at night, but may sleep just as happily in a cold corner of a ballroom, curled up in a tablecloth. They need not be fed; they are just as happy lapping up dew and skimming bread and cream from the kitchens. They need not be comforted, since they seldom weep.

But if faerie children need little love, faerie princes require some counsel.

without it, when Cardan’s elder brother suggested shooting a walnut off the head of a mortal, Cardan had not the wisdom to demur. His habits were impulsive; his manner, imperious.

“Keen marksmanship so impresses our father,” Prince Dain said with a small, teasing smile. “But perhaps it is too difficult. Better not to

make the attempt than to fail.”

For Cardan, who could not attract his father’s good notice and desperately wanted it, the prospect was tempting. He didn’t ask himself who the mortal was or how he had come to be at the Court. Cardan certainly never suspected that the man was beloved of Val Moren and that the seneschal would go mad with grief if the man died.

Leaving Dain free to assume a more prominent position at the High King’s right hand.

“Too difficult? Better not to make the attempt? Those are the words of a coward,” Cardan said, full of childish bravado. In truth, his brother intimidated him, but that only made him more scornful.

Prince Dain smiled. “Let us exchange arrows at least. Then if you miss, you can say that it was my arrow that went awry.”

Prince Cardan ought to have been suspicious of this kindness, but he’d had little enough of the real thing to tell true from false.

Instead, he notched Dain’s arrow and pulled back the bowstring, aiming for the walnut. A sinking feeling came over him. He might not shoot true. He might hurt the man. But on the heels of that, angry glee sparked at the idea of doing something so horrifying that his father could no longer ignore him. If he could not get the High King’s attention for something good, then perhaps he could get it for something really, really bad.

Cardan’s hand wobbled.

The mortal’s liquid eyes watched him in frozen fear. Enchanted, of course. No one would stand like that willingly. That was what decided him.

Cardan forced a laugh as he relaxed the bowstring, letting the arrow fall out of the notch. “I simply will not shoot under these conditions,” he said, feeling ridiculous at having backed down. “The wind is coming from the north and mussing my hair. It’s getting all in my eyes.”

But Prince Dain raised his bow and loosed the arrow Cardan had exchanged with him. It struck the mortal through the throat. He dropped with almost no sound, eyes still open, now staring at nothing.

It happened so fast that Cardan didn’t cry out, didn’t react. He just stared at his brother, slow, terrible understanding crashing over him.

“Ah,” said Prince Dain with a satisfied smile. “A shame. It seems your arrow went awry. Perhaps you can complain to our father about that hair in your eyes.”

After, though he protested, no one would hear Prince Cardan’s side. Dain saw to that. He told the story of the youngest prince’s recklessness, his arrogance, his arrow. The High King would not even allow Cardan an audience.

Despite Val Moren’s pleas for execution, Cardan was punished for the mortal’s death in the way that princes are punished. The High King had Lady Asha locked away in the Tower of Forgetting in Cardan’s stead—something Eldred was relieved to have a reason to do, since he found her both tiresome and troublesome. Care of Prince Cardan was given over to Balekin, the eldest of the siblings, the cruelest, and the only one willing to take him.

And so was Prince Cardan’s reputation made. He had little to do but further it.

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