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Chapter no 12

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

‌I rush back, tearing the long gown on thorns and briars in my haste. I go immediately to the nearest member of the guard. He looks startled when I run up, out of breath, still clad in the rags of the Queen of Mirth.

“The Undersea,” I manage. “Selkies. They’re coming. Protect the king.”

He doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t doubt me. He calls together his knights and moves to flank the throne. Cardan looks at their movement in confusion, and then with a brief, bright spark of panic. No doubt he is recalling how Madoc ordered the circling of the guards around the dais at Prince Dain’s coronation ceremony, just before Balekin started murdering people.

Before I can explain, out of the Milkwood step the selkies, their sleek bodies bare except for long ropes of seaweed and pearls around their throats. The playing of instruments ceases. Laughter gutters out.

Reaching to my thigh, I take out the long knife holstered there. “What is this?” Cardan demands, standing.

A female selkie bows and steps to one side. Behind them come the Gentry of the Undersea. Walking on legs I am not sure they possessed an hour before, they sweep through the grove in soaking-wet gowns and doublets and hose, seeming not at all discomfited. They look ferocious even in their finery.

My eyes search the crowd for Nicasia, but neither she nor the smith are there. Locke sits on one of the arms of the throne, looking for all the world as though he takes for granted that if Cardan is High King, then being High King cannot be so special.

“Your Majesty,” says a gray-skinned man in a coat that appears to be made

from the skin of a shark. He has a strange voice, one that seems hoarse with disuse. “Orlagh, Queen of the Undersea, sends us with a message for the High King. Grant us permission to speak.”

The half circle of knights around Cardan tightens.

Cardan does not immediately answer. Instead, he sits. “The Undersea is welcome at this Hunter’s Moon revel. Dance. Drink. Never let it be said that we are not generous hosts, even to uninvited guests.”

The man kneels, but his expression is not at all humble. “Your munificence is great. And yet, we may not partake of it until our lady’s message is delivered. You must hear us.”

“Must I? Very well,” the High King says after a moment. He makes an airy gesture. “What has she to say?”

The gray-skinned man beckons a girl in a wet blue dress, her hair up in braids. When she opens her mouth, I see that her teeth are thin, viciously pointed, and oddly translucent. She intones the words in a singsong:

The Sea needs a bridegroom, The Land needs a bride.

Cleave together lest You face the rising tide. Spurn the Sea once,

We will have your blood. Spurn the Sea twice,

We will have your clay. Spurn the Sea thrice, Your crown will away.

The gathered Folk of the land, courtiers and petitioners, servants and Gentry, grow wide-eyed at the words.

“Is that a proposal?” Locke asks. I think he means to speak so that only Cardan hears him, but in the silence, his voice carries.

“A threat, I’m afraid,” Cardan returns. He glares at the girl, at the gray- skinned man, at everyone. “You’ve delivered your message. I have no bit of doggerel to send back—my own fault for having a seneschal who cannot double as my Court Poet—but I will be sure to crumple up some paper and drop it into the water when I do.”

For a moment, everyone stays as they were, exactly in their places.

Cardan claps his hands, startling the sea Folk. “Well?” he shouts. “Dance!

Make merry! Isn’t that what you came for?”

His voice rings with authority. He no longer just looks like the High King of Elfhame; he sounds like the High King.

A shiver of premonition goes through me.

The Undersea courtiers, in their sodden garments and gleaming pearls, watch him with pale, cold eyes. Their faces are unexpressive enough that I cannot tell if his shouting upset them. But when the music begins again, they take one another’s webbed hands and sweep away into the revel, to leap and cavort as though this was something they did for pleasure themselves beneath the waves.

My spies have remained hidden through this encounter. Locke melts away from the throne to whirl with two mostly naked selkies. Nicasia remains nowhere to be seen, and when I look for Dulcamara, I cannot spot her, either. Dressed as I am, I cannot bear to speak with anyone in an official capacity. I tear the stinking crown from my head and toss it into the grass.

I think about shimmying out of the tattered gown, but before I can decide to actually do it, Cardan waves me over to the throne.

I do not bow. Tonight, after all, I am a ruler in my own right. The Queen of Mirth, who is not laughing.

“I thought you were leaving,” he snaps.

“And I thought the Queen of Mirth was welcome wheresoever she goes,” I hiss back.

“Assemble the Living Council in my rooms in the palace,” he tells me, voice cold and remote and royal. “I will join you as soon as I can get away.”

I nod and am halfway through the crowd when I realize two things: One, he gave me an order; and two, I obeyed it.

 

 

Once at the palace, I send out pages to summon the Council. I send Snapdragon with a message for my spies to discover where Nicasia has gone. I would have thought that she’d make herself available to hear Cardan’s answer, but given that she was uncertain enough about Cardan’s feelings to shoot a rival lover, maybe she’s reluctant to hear it.

Even if she believes he’d choose her over a war, that’s not saying much.

In my rooms, I strip off my clothes quickly and wash myself. I want to be rid of the perfume of the mushrooms, the stink of the fire, and the humiliation. It feels like a blessing to have my old clothing there. I pull on a dull brown dress, too simple for my current position but comforting all the same. I pull back my hair with ruthless severity.

Tatterfell is no longer around, but it’s obvious she’s been by. My rooms are tidy, my things pressed and hung.

And sitting on my dressing table, a note addressed to me: From the Grand General of the High King’s Army to His Majesty’s Seneschal.

I rip it open. The note is shorter than what is written on the envelope:

Come to the war room immediately. Do not wait for the Council.

My heart thuds dully. I consider pretending I didn’t get the message and simply not go, but that would be cowardice.

If Madoc still has hopes of scheming Oak onto the throne, he can’t let a marriage to the Undersea happen. He has no reason to know that, in this at least, I am entirely on his side. This is a good opportunity to get him to show his hand.

And so, I head reluctantly to his war room. It’s familiar; I played here as a child, under a large wooden table covered in a map of Faerie, with little, carved figures to represent its Courts and armies. His “dolls,” as Vivi used to call them.

When I let myself in, I find it dimly lit. Only a few candles burn low on a desk beside a few stiff chairs.

I recall reading a book curled up in one of those chairs while beside me violent plots were hatched.

Looking up from the very same chair, Madoc rises and gestures for me to sit opposite him, as though we are equals. He is being interestingly careful with me.

On the strategy board, there are only a few figures. Orlagh and Cardan, Madoc and a figure I do not recognize until I study it more carefully. It is myself I am looking at, rendered in carved wood. Seneschal. Spymaster. Kingmaker.

I am abruptly afraid of what I have done to make it onto that board. “I got your note,” I tell him, settling into a chair.

“After tonight, I thought you might be finally reconsidering some of the choices you made,” he says.

I begin to speak, but he holds up a clawed hand to stop my words. “Were I you,” he goes on, “my pride might lead me to pretend otherwise. The Folk cannot tell lies, as you know, not with our tongues. But we can deceive. And we are as capable of self-deceit as any mortal.”

I am stung by his knowing I was crowned Queen of Mirth and laughed at by the Court. “You don’t think I know what I’m doing?”

“Well,” he says carefully, “not for certain. What I see is you humiliating yourself with the youngest and most foolish of princes. Did he promise you something?”

I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from snapping at him. No matter how low I already feel, if he thinks me a fool, then a fool I must allow myself to

be. “I am seneschal to the High King, am I not?”

It’s just hard to dissemble with the laughter of the Court still ringing in my ears. With the foul dust of those mushrooms still in my hair and the memory of Cardan’s obnoxious words.

Excruciating. Alarming. Distressing.

Madoc sighs and spreads his hands in front of him. “Whether I like it or no, so long as Cardan wears the Blood Crown, he’s my king. I am sworn to him as surely as I was to his father, as surely as I would have been to Dain or even Balekin. The opportunity that presented itself at the coronation—the opportunity to change the course of destiny—is lost to me.”

He pauses. However he phrases it, the meaning is the same. The opportunity was lost because I stole it from him. I am the reason Oak is not the High King and Madoc isn’t using his influence to remake Elfhame in his image.

“But you,” Madoc says, “who are not bound by your words. Whose promises can be forsworn…”

I think of what he said to me after the last Living Council meeting, as we walked: No oath binds you. If you regret your move, make another. There are games yet to play. I see he has chosen this moment to expand upon his theme.

“You want me to betray Cardan,” I say, just to make things clear.

He stands and beckons me to the strategy table. “I don’t know what knowledge you have of the Queen of the Undersea from her daughter, but once, the Undersea was a place much like the land. It had many fiefdoms, with many rulers among the selkies and merfolk.

“When Orlagh came into power, she hunted down each of the smaller rulers and murdered them, so the whole Undersea would answer only to her. There are yet a few rulers of the sea she hasn’t brought beneath her thumb, a few too powerful and a few more too remote. But if she marries her daughter to Cardan, you can be sure she will push Nicasia to do the same on land.”

“Murder the heads of the smaller Courts?” I ask.

He smiles. “Of all the Courts. Perhaps at first it will seem like a series of accidents—or a few foolish orders. Or maybe it will be another bloodbath.”

I study him carefully. After all, the last bloodbath was at least partially his doing. “And do you disagree with Orlagh’s philosophy? Would you have done much the same were you the power behind the throne?”

“I wouldn’t have done it on behalf of the sea,” he says. “She means to have the land as her vassal.” He reaches for the table and picks up a small figurine, one carved to represent Queen Orlagh. “She believes in the forced peace of absolute rule.”

I look at the board.

“You wanted to impress me,” he says. “You guessed, rightly, that I would not see your true potential until you bested me. Consider me impressed, Jude. But it would be better for both of us to stop fighting each other and focus on our common interest: power.”

That hangs in the air ominously. A compliment delivered in the form of a threat. He goes on. “But now, come back to my side. Come back before I move against you in earnest.”

“What does coming back look like?” I ask.

He gives me an evaluating stare, as though wondering just how much to say out loud. “I have a plan. When the times comes, you can help me implement it.”

“A plan I didn’t help make and that you won’t tell me much about?” I ask. “What if I’m more interested in the power I already have?”

He smiles, showing his teeth. “Then I guess I don’t know my daughter very well. Because the Jude I knew would cut out that boy’s heart for what he did to you tonight.”

At the shame of having the revel thrown in my face, I snap. “You let me be humiliated in Faerie from the time I was a child. You’ve let Folk hurt me and laugh at me and mutilate me.” I hold up the hand with the missing fingertip, where one of his own guards bit it clean off. Another scar is at its center, from where Dain forced me to stick a dagger through my hand. “I’ve been glamoured and carried into a revel, weeping and alone. As far as I can tell, the only difference between tonight and all the other nights when I endured indignities without complaint is that those benefited you, and when I endure this, it benefits me.”

Madoc looks shaken. “I didn’t know.” “You didn’t want to know,” I return.

He turns his gaze to the board, to the pieces on it, to the little figurine that represents me. “That argument’s a fine strike, right at my liver, but I am not so sure it does as well as a parry. The boy is unworthy—”

He would have kept on talking, but the door opens and Randalin is there, peering in, his robes of state looking hastily tugged on. “Oh, both of you. Good. The meeting is about to begin. Make haste.”

As I start to follow, Madoc grabs my arm. His voice is pitched low. “You tried to tell us that this was going to happen. All I ask from you tonight is that you use your power as seneschal to block any alliance with the Undersea.”

“Yes,” I say, thinking of Nicasia and Oak and all my plans. “That I can guarantee.”

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