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Chapter no 11

The Wicked King (The Folk of the Air, 2)

‌The evening of the Hunter’s Moon, the whole Court moves to the Milkwood, where the trees are shrouded in masses of silk coverings that look, to my mortal eyes, like nothing so much as the egg sacks of moths, or perhaps the wrapped-up suppers of spiders.

Locke has had a structure of flat stones built up the way a wall might be, into the rough shape of a throne. A massive slab of rock serves for a back, with a wide stone for a seat. It towers over the grove. Cardan sits on it, crown gleaming at his brow. The nearby bonfire burns sage and yarrow. For a distorted moment, he seems larger than himself, moved into myth, the true High King of Faerie and no one’s puppet.

Awe slows my step, panic following at my heels.

A king is a living symbol, a beating heart, a star upon which Elfhame’s future is written. Surely you have noticed that since his reign began, the isles are different. Storms come in faster. Colors are a bit more vivid, smells are sharper. When he becomes drunk, his subjects become tipsy without knowing why. When his blood falls, things grow.

I just hope he doesn’t see any of this on my face. When I am in front of him, I bow my head, grateful for an excuse not to meet his eyes.

“My king,” I say.

Cardan rises from the throne, unclasping a cape made entirely of gleaming black feathers. A new ring glimmers on his pinkie finger, red stone catching the flames of the bonfire. A very familiar ring. My ring.

I recall that he took my hand in his rooms.

I grind my teeth, stealing a glance at my own bare hand. He stole my ring.

He stole it and I didn’t notice. The Roach taught him how to do that.

I wonder if Nicasia would count that as a betrayal. It sure feels like one. “Walk with me,” he says, taking my hand and guiding me through the

crowd. Hobs and grigs, green skin and brown, tattered wings and sculpted bark garments—all the Folk of Elfhame have come out tonight in their finery. We pass a man in a coat stitched with golden leaves and another in a green leather vest with a cap that curls up like a fern. Blankets cover the ground and are piled with trays of grapes the size of fists and ruby-bright cherries.

“What are we doing?” I ask as Cardan steers me to the edge of the woods. “I find it tedious to have my every conversation remarked on,” he says. “I

want you to know your sister isn’t here tonight. I made sure of it.”

“So what does Locke have planned?” I ask, unwilling to be grateful and refusing to compliment him on his sleight of hand. “He’s certainly staked his reputation on this evening.”

Cardan makes a face. “I don’t worry my pretty head about that kind of thing. You’re the ones who are supposed to be doing the work. Like the ant in the fable who labors in the dirt while the grasshopper sings the summer away.”

“And has nothing left for winter,” I say.

“I need for nothing,” he says, shaking his head, mock-mournful. “I am the Corn King, after all, to be sacrificed so little Oak can take my place in the spring.”

Overhead, orbs have been lit and glow with warm, magical light as they drift through the night air, but his words send a shiver of dread through me.

I look into his eyes. His hand slides to my hip, as though he might pull me closer. For a dizzy, stupid moment, something seems to shimmer in the air between us.

Kiss me until I am sick of it.

He doesn’t try to kiss me, of course. He hasn’t been shot at, isn’t delirious with drink, isn’t filled with enough self-loathing.

“You ought not to be here tonight, little ant,” he says, letting go of me. “Go back to the palace.” Then he is cutting back through the crowd. Courtiers bow as he passes. A few, the most brazen, catch hold of his coat, flirt, try to pull him into the dance.

And he, who once ripped a boy’s wing from his back because he wouldn’t bow, now allows all this familiarity with a laugh.

What has changed? Is he different because I have forced him to be? Is it because he is away from Balekin? Or is he no different at all and I am only seeing what I want to see?

I still feel the warm pressure of his fingers against my skin. Something is really wrong with me, to want what I hate, to want someone who despises me, even if he wants me, too. My only comfort is that he doesn’t know what I feel.

Whatever debauchery Locke has planned, I must stay to find the representative from the Court of Termites. The sooner my favor to their Lord Roiben is dismissed, the sooner I have one less debt hanging over my head. Besides, they can hardly offend me more than they have.

Cardan makes it back to the throne as Nicasia arrives with Grimsen, a moth pin holding his cloak.

Grimsen begins a speech that doubtlessly is flattering and produces something from a pocket. It looks like an earring—a single drop, which Cardan lifts to the light and admires. I guess he has made his first magical object in Elfhame’s service.

In the tree to the left of them, I see the hob-faced owl, Snapdragon, blinking down. Although I can’t spot them, the Ghost and several more spies are nearby, watching the revel from enough distance that if a move is made, they will be there.

A centaur-like musician with the body of a deer has come forward—one carrying a lyre carved in the shape of a pixie, her wings forming the top curve of the instrument. It is strung with what appears to be thread of many colors. The musician begins to play, the carving to sing.

Nicasia saunters over to where the smith is sitting. She wears a dress of purple that is peacock blue when it catches the light. Her hair is woven into a braid that circles her head, and at her brow is a chain from which dangle dozens upon dozens of beads in sparkling purples and blues and amber.

When Grimsen turns toward her, his expression lightens. I frown.

Jugglers begin tossing a series of objects—from live rats to shiny swords

—into the air. Wine and honeyed cakes are passed around.

Finally, I spot Dulcamara from the Court of Termites, her red-as-poppies hair bound up into coils and a two-handed blade strapped across her back, a silver dress blowing around her. I walk over, trying not to seem intimidated.

“Welcome,” I say. “To what do we owe the honor of your visit? Has your king found something I could do—”

She cuts me off with a glance toward Cardan. “Lord Roiben wants you to know that even in the low Courts, we hear things.”

For a moment, my mind goes through an anxious inventory of all the things Dulcamara might have heard, then I remember that the Folk have been whispering that Cardan shot one of his lovers for his own amusement. The Court of Termites is one of the few Courts to have both Seelie and Unseelie

members; I’m not sure if they’d mind about the hurt courtier or just the possibility of an unstable High King.

“Even without liars, there can still be lies,” I say carefully. “Whatever rumors you heard, I can explain what really happened.”

“Because I ought to believe you? I think not.” She smiles. “We can call in our marker anytime we like, mortal girl. Lord Roiben may send me to you, for instance, to be your personal guard.” I wince. By guard she obviously means spy. “Or perhaps we will borrow your smith, Grimsen. He could make Lord Roiben a blade that cuts clean through vows.”

“I haven’t forgotten my debt. Indeed, I hoped you would let me repay it now,” I say, drawing myself up to my full authority. “But Lord Roiben shouldn’t forget—”

She cuts me off with a snarl. “See that you don’t forget.” With that, she stalks off, leaving me to think of all the smarter things I should have said. I still owe a debt to the Court of Termites, and I still have no way to extend my power over Cardan. I still have no idea who might have betrayed me or what to do about Nicasia.

At least this revel does not seem particularly worse than any other, for all of Locke’s braggadocio. I wonder if it might be possible for me to do what Taryn wants and get him ousted as Master of Revels after all, just for being boring.

As though Locke can read my thoughts, he claps his hands together, silencing the crowd. Music stutters to a stop, and with it the dancing and juggling, even the laughter.

“I have another amusement for you,” he says. “It is time to crown a monarch tonight. The Queen of Mirth.”

One of the lutists plays a merry improvisation. There is scattered laughter from the audience.

A chill goes through me. I have heard of the game, although I have never seen it played. It is simple enough: Steal away a mortal girl, make her drunk on faerie wine and faerie flattery and faerie kisses, then convince her she is being honored with a crown—all the time heaping insults on her oblivious head.

If Locke has brought some mortal girl here to have fun at her expense, he will have me to reckon with. I will lash him to the black rocks of Insweal for the mermaids to devour.

While I am still thinking that, Locke says, “But surely only a king can crown a queen.”

Cardan stands up from the throne, stepping down the stones to be beside Locke. His long, feathered cape slithers after him.

“So where is she?” the High King asks, brows raised. He doesn’t seem amused, and I am hopeful he will end this before it begins. What possible satisfaction could he find in the game?

“Haven’t you guessed? There is only one mortal among our company,” Locke says. “Why, our Queen of Mirth is none other than Jude Duarte.”

For a moment, my mind goes entirely blank. I cannot think. Then I see Locke’s grin and the grinning faces of the Folk of the Court, and all my feelings curdle into dread.

“Let’s have a cheer for her,” says Locke.

They cry out in their inhuman voices, and I have to choke down panic. I look over at Cardan and find something dangerous glittering in his eyes—I will get no sympathy there.

Nicasia is smiling exultantly, and beside her, the smith, Grimsen, is clearly diverted. Dulcamara, at the edge of the woods, watches to see what I will do.

I guess Locke has done something right at last. He promised the High King delights, and I am entirely sure that Cardan is thoroughly delighted.

I could order him to stop whatever happens next. He knows it, too, which means that he supposes I will hate what he’s about to do, but not enough to command him and reveal all.

Of course, there’s a lot I would endure before I did that.

You will regret this. I don’t say the words, but I look at Cardan and think them with such force that it feels as though I am shouting.

Locke gives a signal, and a group of imps comes forward carrying an ugly, tattered dress, along with a circle of branches. Affixed to the makeshift crown are foul little mushrooms, the kind that produce a putrid-smelling dust.

I swear under my breath.

“New raiment for our new queen,” Locke says.

There is some scattered laughter and gasps of surprise. This is a cruel game, meant to be played on mortal girls when they’re glamoured so they don’t know they’re being laughed at. That’s the fun of it, their foolishness. They delight over dresses that appear like finery to them. They exult greedily over crowns seeming to gleam with jewels. They swoon at the promise of true love.

Thanks to Prince Dain’s geas, faerie glamours do not work on me, but even if they did, every member of the Court expects the High King’s human seneschal to be wearing a charm of protection—a strand of rowan berries, a tiny bundle of oak, ash, and thorn twigs. They know I see the truth of what Locke is giving me.

The Court watches me with eager, indrawn breaths. I am sure they have never watched a Queen of Mirth who knew she was being mocked before.

This is a new kind of game.

“Tell us what you think of our lady,” Locke asks Cardan loudly, with a strange smile.

The High King’s expression stiffens, only to smooth out a moment later when he turns toward the Court. “I have too often been troubled by dreams of Jude,” he says, voice carrying. “Her face features prominently in my most frequent nightmare.”

The courtiers laugh. Heat floods my face because he’s telling them a secret and using that secret to mock me.

When Eldred was High King, his revels were staid, but a new High King isn’t just a renewal of the land, but of the Court itself. I can tell he delights them with his caprices and his capacity for cruelty. I was a fool to be tempted into thinking he’s any different than he’s always been. “Some among us do not find mortals beautiful. In fact, some of you might swear that Jude is unlovely.”

For a moment, I wonder if he wants me to be furious enough to order him to stop and reveal our bargain to the Court. But no, it’s only that with my heart thundering in my head, I can barely think.

“But I believe it is only that her beauty is… unique.” Cardan pauses for more laughter from the crowd, greater jeering. “Excruciating. Alarming. Distressing.”

“Perhaps she needs new raiment to bring out her true allure,” Locke says. “Greater finery for one so fine.”

The imps move to pull the tattered, threadbare rag gown over my own to the delight of the Folk.

More laughter. My whole body feels hot. Part of me wants to run away, but I am caught by the desire to show them I cannot be cowed.

“Wait,” I say, pitching my voice loud enough to carry. The imps hesitate.

Cardan’s expression is unreadable.

I reach down and catch hold of my hem, then pull the dress I am wearing over my head. It’s a simple thing—no corset, no clasps—and it comes off just as simply. I stand in the middle of the party in my underwear, daring them to say something. Daring Cardan to speak.

Now I am ready to put on my new gown,” I say. There are a few cheers, as though they don’t understand the game is humiliation. Locke, surprisingly, appears delighted.

Cardan steps close to me, his gaze devouring. I am not sure I can bear his cutting me down again. Luckily, he seems at a loss for words.

“I hate you,” I whisper before he can speak.

He takes my chin in his fingers, tilting my face to his.

“Say it again,” he says as the imps comb my hair and place the ugly, stinking crown on my head. His voice is low. The words are for me alone.

I pull out of his grip, but not before I see his expression. He looks as he did when he was forced to answer my questions, when he admitted his desire for me. He looks as though he’s confessing.

A flush goes through me, confusing because I am both furious and shamed. I turn my head.

“Queen of Mirth, time for your first dance,” Locke tells me, pushing me toward the crowd.

Clawed fingers close on my arms. Inhuman laughter rings in my ears as the music starts. When the dance begins anew, I am in it. My feet slap down on the dirt in time with the pounding rhythm of the drums, my heart speeds with the trill of a flute. I am spun around, passed hand to hand through the crowd. Pushed and shoved, pinched and bruised.

I try to pull against the compulsion of the music, try to break away from the dance, but I cannot. When I try to drag my feet, hands haul me along until the music catches me up again. Everything becomes a wild blur of sound and flying cloth, of shiny inkdrop eyes and too-sharp teeth.

I am lost to it, out of my own control, as though I were a child again, as though I hadn’t bargained with Dain and poisoned myself and stolen the throne. This is not glamour. I cannot stop myself from dancing, cannot stop my body from moving even as my terror grows. I will not stop. I will dance through the leather of my shoes, dance until my feet are bloody, dance until I collapse.

“Cease playing!” I shout as loudly as I can, panic giving my voice the edge of a scream. “As your Queen of Mirth, as the seneschal of the High King, you will allow me to choose the dance!”

The musicians pause. The footfalls of the dancers slow. It is only perhaps a moment’s reprieve, but I wasn’t sure I could get even that. I am shaking all over with fury and fear and the strain of fighting my own body.

I draw myself up, pretending with the rest of them that I am decked out in finery instead of rags. “Let’s have a reel,” I say, trying to imagine the way my stepmother, Oriana, would have spoken the words. For once, my voice comes out just the way I want, full of cool command. “And I will dance it with my king, who has showered me with so many compliments and gifts tonight.”

The Court watches me with their glistening, wet eyes. These are words they might expect the Queen of Mirth to say, the ones I am sure countless mortals have spoken before under different circumstances.

I hope it unnerves them to know I am lying.

After all, if the insult to me is pointing out that I am mortal, then this is my

riposte: I live here, too, and I know the rules. Perhaps I even know them better than you since you were born into them, but I had to learn. Perhaps I know them better than you because you have greater leeway to break them.

“Will you dance with me?” I ask Cardan, sinking into a curtsy, acid in my voice. “For I find you every bit as beautiful as you find me.”

A hiss goes through the crowd. I have scored a point on Cardan, and the Court is not sure how to feel about it. They like unfamiliar things, like surprises, but perhaps they are wondering if they will like this one.

Still, they seem riveted by my little performance. Cardan’s smile is unreadable.

“I’d be delighted,” he says as the musicians begin to play again. He sweeps me into his arms.

We danced once before, at the coronation of Prince Dain. Before the murdering began. Before I took Cardan prisoner at knifepoint. I wonder if he is thinking of it when he spins me around the Milkwood.

He might not be particularly practiced with a blade, but as he promised the hag’s daughter, he’s a skilled dancer. I let him steer me through steps I doubtlessly would have fumbled on my own. My heart is racing, and my skin is slicked with sweat.

Papery moths fly above our heads, circling up as though tragically drawn to the light of the stars.

“Whatever you do to me,” I say, too angry to stay quiet, “I can do worse to you.”

“Oh,” he says, fingers tight on mine. “Do not think I forget that for a moment.”

“Then why?” I demand.

“You believe I planned your humiliation?” He laughs. “Me? That sounds like work.”

“I don’t care if you did or not,” I tell him, too angry to make sense of my feelings. “I just care that you enjoyed it.”

“And why shouldn’t I delight to see you squirm? You tricked me,” Cardan says. “You played me for a fool, and now I am the King of Fools.”

“The High King of Fools,” I say, a sneer in my voice. Our gazes meet, and there’s a shock of mutual understanding that our bodies are pressed too closely. I am conscious of my skin, of the sweat beading on my lip, of the slide of my thighs against each other. I am aware of the warmth of his neck beneath my twined fingers, of the prickly brush of his hair and how I want to sink my hands into it. I inhale the scent of him—moss and oak wood and leather. I stare at his treacherous mouth and imagine it on me.

Everything about this is wrong. Around us, the revel is resuming. Some of

the Court glance our way, because some of the Court always look to the High King, but Locke’s game is at an end.

Go back to the palace, Cardan said, and I ignored the warning.

I think of Locke’s expression while Cardan spoke, the eagerness in his face. It wasn’t me he was watching. I wonder for the first time if my humiliation was incidental, the bait to his hook.

Tell us what you think of our lady.

To my immense relief, at the end of the reel, the musicians pause again, looking to the High King for instructions.

I pull away from him. “I am overcome, Your Majesty. I would like your permission to withdraw.”

For a moment, I wonder what I will do if Cardan denies me permission. I have issued many commands, but none about sparing my feelings.

“You are free to depart or stay, as you like,” Cardan says magnanimously. “The Queen of Mirth is welcome wheresoever she goes.”

I turn away from him and stumble out of the revel to lean against a tree, sucking in breaths of cool sea air. My cheeks are hot, my face is burning.

At the edge of the Milkwood, I watch waves beating against the black rocks. After a moment, I notice shapes on the sand, as though shadows were moving on their own. I blink again. Not shadows. Selkies, rising from the sea. A score, at least. They cast off their sleek sealskins and raise silver blades.

The Undersea has come to the Hunter’s Moon revel.

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