Chapter no 15

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

‌Gowns arrive the next day, boxes of them, along with coats and cunning little jackets, velvet pants and tall boots. They all look as though they belong to someone ferocious, someone both better and worse than me.

I dress myself, and before I am done, Tatterfell comes in. She insists on sweeping back my hair and catching it up in a new comb, one carved in the shape of a toad with a single cymophane gem for an eye.

I look at myself in a coat of black velvet tipped with silver and think of the care with which Taryn chose the piece. I want to think about that and nothing else.

Once, she said that she hated me a little for being witness to her humiliation with the Gentry. I wonder if that’s why I have such a hard time forgetting about what happened with Locke, because she saw it, and whenever I see her, I remember all over again how it felt to be made a fool.

When I look at my new clothes, though, I think of all the good things that come from someone knowing you well enough to understand your hopes and fears. I may not have told Taryn all the awful things I’ve done and the terrible skills I’ve acquired, but she’s dressed me as though I had.

In my new clothes, I make my way to a hastily called Council meeting and listen as they debate back and forth whether Nicasia took Cardan’s angry message back to Orlagh and whether fish can fly (that’s Fala).

“Whether or not she did doesn’t matter,” says Madoc. “The High King has made his position clear. If he won’t marry, then we have to assume that Orlagh is going to fulfill her threats. Which means she’s going to go after his


“You are moving very fast,” says Randalin. “Ought we not yet consider that the treaty might still hold?”

“What good does it do to consider that?” asks Mikkel with a sidelong glance at Nihuar. “The Unseelie Courts do not survive on wishes.”

The Seelie representative purses her small insect-like mouth.

“The stars say that this is a time of great upheaval,” says Baphen. “I see a new monarch coming, but whether that’s a sign of Cardan deposed or Orlagh overturned or Nicasia made queen, I cannot say.”

“I have a plan,” says Madoc. “Oak will be here in Elfhame very soon.

When Orlagh sends her people after him, I mean to catch her out.”

“No,” I say, surprising everyone into looking my way. “You’re not going to use Oak as bait.”

Madoc doesn’t seem particularly offended by my outburst. “It may seem that’s what I am doing—”

“Because you are.” I glare at him, remembering all the reasons I didn’t want Oak to be High King in the first place, with Madoc as his regent.

“If Orlagh plans to hunt Oak, then it’s better we know when she will strike than wait for her to move. And the best way to know is to engineer an opportunity.”

“How about removing opportunity instead?” I say.

Madoc shakes his head. “That’s nothing but the wishes Mikkel cautioned against. I’ve already written to Vivienne. They plan to arrive within the week.”

“Oak can’t come here,” I say. “It was bad enough before, but not now.” “You think the mortal world is safe?” Madoc scoffs. “You think the

Undersea cannot reach him there? Oak is my son, I am the Grand General of Elfhame, and I know my business. Make any arrangement you like for protecting him, but leave the rest to me. This is no time for an attack of nerves.”

I grind my teeth. “Nerves?”

He gives me a steady look. “It’s easy to put your own life on the line, isn’t it? To make peace with danger. But a strategist must sometimes risk others, even those we love.” He gives me a significant look, perhaps to remind me that I once poisoned him. “For the good of Elfhame.”

But I bite my tongue again. This is not a conversation that I am likely to get anywhere with in front of the entire Council. Especially since I’m not sure I’m right.

I need to find out more of the Undersea’s plans, and I need to do so quickly. If there’s any alternative to risking Oak, I mean to find it.

Randalin has more questions about the High King’s personal guard. Madoc wants the lower Courts to send more than their usual allotment of troops. Both Nihuar and Mikkel have objections. I let the words wash over me, trying to corral my thoughts.

As the meeting breaks up, a page comes up to me with two messages. One is from Vivi, delivered to the palace, asking me to come and bring her and Oak and Heather to Elfhame for Taryn’s wedding in a day’s time—sooner even than Madoc suggested. The second is from Cardan, summoning me to the throne room.

Cursing under my breath, I start to leave, then Randalin catches my sleeve. “Jude,” he says. “Allow me to give you a word of advice.”

I wonder if I am about to be scolded.

“The seneschal isn’t just the voice of the king,” he says. “You’re his hands as well. If you don’t like working with General Madoc, find a new Grand General, one who hasn’t previously committed treason.”

I knew that Randalin was often at odds with Madoc in Council meetings, but I had no idea he wanted to eliminate him. And yet, I don’t trust Randalin any more than I do Madoc.

“An interesting thought,” I say in what I hope is a neutral manner before making my escape.



Cardan is lounging sideways on the throne when I come in, one long leg hanging over an armrest.

Sleepy revelers party yet in the great hall, around tables still piled high with delights. The smell of freshly turned earth and freshly spilled wine hangs in the air. As I make my way to the dais, I see Taryn asleep on a rug. A pixie boy I do not know slumbers beside her, his tall dragonfly wings twitching occasionally, as though in dreams of flight.

Locke is wide awake, sitting on the edge of the dais, yelling at musicians.

Frustrated, Cardan shifts, legs falling to the floor. “What exactly is the problem here?”

A boy with the lower half of a deer steps forward. I recognize him from the Hunter’s Moon revel, where he played. His voice shakes when he speaks. “Your pardon, Your Majesty. It is only that my lyre was stolen.”

“So what are we debating?” Cardan says. “A lyre is either here or gone, is it not? If it’s gone, let a fiddler play.”

“He stole it.” The boy points to one of the other musicians, this one with hair like grass.

Cardan turns toward the thief with an impatient frown.

My lyre was strung with the hair of beautiful mortals who died tragically young,” sputters the grass-haired faerie. “It took me decades to assemble and was not easy to maintain. The mortal voices sung mournfully when I played. It could have made even yourself cry, begging your pardon.”

Cardan makes an impatient gesture. “If you are done with bragging, what is the meat of this matter? I have not asked you about your instrument, but his.”

The grass-haired faerie seems to blush, his skin turning a darker green— which I suppose is not actually the color of his flesh but of his blood. “He borrowed it of an eve,” he says, pointing toward the deer-boy. “After that, be became obsessed and would not rest until he’d destroyed it. I only took his lyre in recompense, for though it is inferior, I must play something.”

“You ought to punish them both,” says Locke. “For bringing such a trivial concern before the High King.”

“Well?” Cardan turns back to the boy who first claimed his lyre was stolen. “Shall I render my judgment?”

“Not yet, I beg of you,” says the deer-boy, his ears twitching with nerves. “When I played his lyre, the voices of those who had died and whose hair made the strings spoke to me. They were the true owners of the lyre. And when I destroyed it, I was saving them. They were trapped, you see.”

Cardan flops onto his throne, tipping back his head in frustration, knocking his crown askew. “Enough,” he says. “You are both thieves, and neither of you particularly skilled ones.”

“But you don’t understand the torment, the screaming—” Then the deer- boy presses a hand over his mouth, recalling himself in the presence of the High King.

“Have you never heard that virtue is its own reward?” Cardan says pleasantly. “That’s because there’s no other reward in it.”

The boy scuffs his hoof on the floor.

“You stole a lyre and your lyre was stolen in turn,” Cardan says softly. “There’s some justice in that.” He turns to the grass-haired musician. “And you took matters into your own hands, so I can only assume they were arranged to your satisfaction. But both of you have irritated me. Give me that instrument.”

Both look displeased, but the grass-haired musician comes forward and surrenders the lyre to a guard.

“Each of you will have a chance to play it, and whosoever plays most sweetly, you will have it. For art is more than virtue or vice.”

I make my careful way up the steps as the deer-boy begins his playing. I

didn’t expect Cardan to care enough to hear out the musicians, and I can’t decide if his judgment is brilliant or if he is just a jerk. I worry that once again I am reading what I want to be true into his actions.

The music is haunting, thrumming across my skin and down to my bones. “Your Majesty,” I say. “You sent for me?”

“Ah, yes.” His raven’s-wing hair falls over one eye. “So are we at war?”

For a moment, I think he is talking about us. “No,” I say. “At least not until the next full moon.”

“You can’t fight the sea,” Locke says philosophically.

Cardan gives a little laugh. “You can fight anything. Winning, though, that’s something else again. Isn’t that right, Jude?”

“Jude is a real winner,” Locke says with a grin. Then he looks out at the players and claps his hands. “Enough. Switch.”

When Cardan doesn’t contradict his Master of Revels, the deer-boy reluctantly turns over the lyre to the grass-haired faerie. A fresh wash of music rushes through the hill, a wild tune to speed my heart.

“You were just going,” I tell Locke.

He grins. “I find I am very comfortable here,” Locke says. “Surely there’s nothing you have to say to the king that is so very personal or private.”

“It’s a shame you’ll never find out. Go. Now.” I think about Randalin’s advice, his reminder that I have power. Maybe I do, but I am still unable to get rid of a Master of Revels for a half hour, no less a Grand General who is also, more or less, my father.

“Leave,” Cardan tells Locke. “I didn’t summon her here for your


“You are most ungenerous. If you truly cared for me, you would have,” Locke says as he hops down from the dais.

“Take Taryn home,” I call after him. If it wasn’t for her, I would punch him right in the face.

“He likes you this way, I think,” Cardan says. “Flush-cheeked and furious.”

“I don’t care what he likes,” I spit out.

“You seem to not care quite a lot.” His voice is dry, and when I look at him, I cannot read his face.

“Why am I here?” I ask.

He kicks his legs off the side of the throne and stands. “You,” he points to the deer-boy. “Today you are fortunate. Take the lyre. See that neither of you draw my notice again.” As the deer-boy bows and the grass-haired faerie begins to sulk, Cardan turns to me. “Come.”

Ignoring his high-handed manner with some difficulty, I follow him

behind the throne and off the dais, where a small door is set against the stone wall, half-hidden by ivy. I’ve never been here before.

Cardan sweeps aside the ivy, and we go inside.

It is a small room, clearly intended for intimate meetings and assignations. Its walls are covered in moss, with small glowing mushrooms climbing them, casting a pale white light on us. There’s a low couch, upon which people could sit or recline, as the situation called for.

We are alone in a way we have not been alone for a long time, and when he takes a step toward me, my heart skips a beat.

Cardan’s eyebrows rise. “My brother sent me a message.” He unfolds it from his pocket:

If you want to save your neck, pay me a visit. And put your seneschal on a leash.

“So,” he says, holding it out to me. “What have you been about?”

I let out a sigh of relief. It didn’t take long for Lady Asha to pass the information I gave her to Balekin, and it didn’t take long for Balekin to act on it. One point to me.

“I stopped you from getting some messages,” I admit.

“And you decided not to mention them.” Cardan looks at me without particular rancor but is not exactly pleased. “Just as you declined to tell me about Balekin’s meetings with Orlagh or Nicasia’s plans for me.”

“Look, of course Balekin wants to see you,” I say, trying to redirect the conversation away from his sadly incomplete list of stuff I haven’t told him. “You’re his brother, whom he kept in his own house. You’re the only person with the power to free him who might actually do it. I figured if you were in a forgiving mood, you could talk to him anytime you wanted. You didn’t need his exhortations.”

“So what changed?” he asks, waving the piece of paper at me. Now he does sound angry. “Why was I permitted to receive this?”

“I gave him a source of information,” I say. “One it’s possible for me to compromise.”

“And I am supposed to reply to this little note?” he asks.

“Have him brought to you in chains.” I take the paper from him and jam it into my pocket. “I’d be interested to know what he thinks he can get from you with a little conversation, especially since he doesn’t know you’re aware of his ties to the Undersea.”

Cardan’s gaze narrows. The worst part is that I am deceiving him again right now, deceiving by omission. Hiding that my source of information, the one I can now compromise, is his own mother.

I thought you wanted me to do this on my own, I want to say. I thought I

was supposed to rule and you were supposed to be merry and that was supposed to be that.

“I suspect he will try to shout at me until I give him what he wants,” Cardan says. “It might be possible to goad him into letting something slip. Possible, not likely.”

I nod, and the scheming part of my brain, honed on strategy games, supplies me with a move. “Nicasia knows more than she’s saying. Make her say the rest of it, and then use that against Balekin.”

“Yes, well, I don’t think it would be politically expedient to put thumbscrews to a princess of the sea.”

I look at him again, at his soft mouth and his high cheekbones, at the cruel beauty of his face. “Not thumbscrews. You. You go to Nicasia and charm her.”

His eyebrows go up.

“Oh, come on,” I say, the plan coming together in my mind as I am speaking, a plan that I hate as surely as I know it will be effective. “You’re practically draped in courtiers every time I see you.”

“I’m the king,” he says.

“They’ve been draped over you for longer than that.” I am frustrated having to explain this. Surely he’s aware of the response of the Folk to him.

He makes an impatient gesture. “You mean back when I was merely the


“Use your wiles,” I say, exasperated and embarrassed. “I’m sure you’ve got some. She wants you. It shouldn’t be difficult.”

His eyebrows, if anything, climb higher. “You’re seriously suggesting I do this.”

I take a breath, realizing that I am going to have to convince him that it will work. And that I know something that might. “Nicasia’s the one who came through the passageway and shot that girl you were kissing,” I say.

“You mean she tried to kill me?” he asks. “Honestly, Jude, how many secrets are you keeping?”

I think of his mother again and bite my tongue. Too many. “She was shooting at the girl, not you. She found you in bed with someone, got jealous, and shot twice. Unfortunately for you, but fortunately for everyone else, she’s a terrible shot. Now do you believe me that she wants you?”

“I know not what to believe,” he says, clearly angry, maybe at her, maybe at me, probably at both of us.

“She thought to surprise you in your bed. Give her what she wants, and get the information we need to avoid a war.”

He stalks toward me, close enough that I can feel his breath stirring my

hair. “Are you commanding me?”

“No,” I say, startled and unable to meet his gaze. “Of course not.”

His fingers come to my chin, tilting my head so I am looking up into his black eyes, the rage in them as hot as coals. “You just think I ought to. That I can. That I’d be good at it. Very well, Jude. Tell me how it’s done. Do you think she’d like it if I came to her like this, if I looked deeply into her eyes?”

My whole body is alert, alive with sick desire, embarrassing in its intensity.

He knows. I know he knows.

“Probably,” I say, my voice coming out a little shakily. “Whatever it is you usually do.”

“Oh, come now,” he says, his voice full of barely controlled fury. “If you want me to play the bawd, at least give me the benefit of your advice.”

His beringed fingers trace over my cheek, trace the line of my lip and down my throat. I feel dizzy and overwhelmed. “Should I touch her like this?” he asks, lashes lowered. The shadows limn his face, casting his cheekbones into stark relief.

“I don’t know,” I say, but my voice betrays me. It’s all wrong, high and breathless.

He presses his mouth to my ear, kissing me there. His hands skim over my shoulders, making me shiver. “And then like this? Is this how I ought to seduce her?” I can feel his mouth shape the light words against my skin. “Do you think it would work?”

I dig my fingernails into the meat of my palm to keep from moving against him. My whole body is trembling with tension. “Yes.”

Then his mouth is against mine, and my lips part. I close my eyes against what I’m about to do. My fingers reach up to tangle in the black curls of his hair. He doesn’t kiss me as though he’s angry; his kiss is soft, yearning.

Everything slows, goes liquid and hot. I can barely think.

I’ve wanted this and feared it, and now that it’s happening, I don’t know how I will ever want anything else.

We stumble back to the low couch. He leans me back against the cushions, and I pull him down over me. His expression mirrors my own, surprise and a little horror.

“Tell me again what you said at the revel,” he says, climbing over me, his body against mine.

“What?” I can barely think.

“That you hate me,” he says, his voice hoarse. “Tell me that you hate me.” “I hate you,” I say, the words coming out like a caress. I say it again, over and over. A litany. An enchantment. A ward against what I really feel. “I hate

you. I hate you. I hate you.” He kisses me harder.

“I hate you,” I breathe into his mouth. “I hate you so much that sometimes I can’t think of anything else.”

At that, he makes a harsh, low sound.

One of his hands slides over my stomach, tracing the shape of my skin. He kisses me again, and it’s like falling off a cliff. Like a mountain slide, building momentum with every touch, until there is only crashing destruction ahead.

I have never felt anything like this.

He begins to unbutton my doublet, and I try not to freeze, try not to show my inexperience. I don’t want him to stop.

It feels like a geas. It has all the sinister pleasure of sneaking out of the house, all the revolting satisfaction of stealing. It reminds me of the moment before I slammed a blade through my hand, amazed at my own capacity for self-betrayal.

He leans up to pull off his own jacket, and I try to wriggle out of mine. He looks at me and blinks, as through a fog. “This is an absolutely terrible idea,” he says with a kind of amazement in his voice.

“Yes,” I tell him, kicking off my boots.

I am wearing hose, and I don’t think there’s an elegant way to strip them off. Certainly, I don’t find it. Tangled in the fabric, feeling foolish, I realize I could stop this now. I could gather up my things and go. But I don’t.

He shucks his cuffed white shirt over his head in a single elegant gesture, revealing bare skin and scars. My hands are shaking. He captures them and kisses my knuckles with a kind of reverence.

“I want to tell you so many lies,” he says.

I shudder, and my heart hammers as his hands skim over my skin, one sliding between my thighs. I mirror him, fumbling with the buttons of his breeches. He helps me push them down, his tail curling against his leg then twisting to coil against mine, soft as a whisper. I reach over to slide my hand over the flat plane of his stomach. I don’t let myself hesitate, but my inexperience is obvious. His skin is hot under my palm, against my calluses. His fingers are too clever by half.

I feel as though I am drowning in sensation.

His eyes are open, watching my flushed face, my ragged breathing. I try to stop myself from making embarrassing noises. It’s more intimate than the way he’s touching me, to be looked at like that. I hate that he knows what he’s doing and I don’t. I hate being vulnerable. I hate that I throw my head back, baring my throat. I hate the way I cling to him, the nails of one hand digging into his back, my thoughts splintering, and the single last thing in my head:

that I like him better than I’ve ever liked anyone and that of all the things he’s ever done to me, making me like him so much is by far the worst.

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