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Chapter no 16

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

‌One of the hardest things to do as a spy, as a strategist, or even just as a person, is wait. I recall the Ghost’s lessons, making me sit for hours with a crossbow in my hand without my mind wandering, waiting for the perfect shot.

So much of winning is waiting.

The other part, though, is taking the shot when it comes. Unleashing all that momentum.

In my rooms again, I remind myself of that. I can’t afford to be distracted. Tomorrow, I need to get Vivi and Oak from the mortal world, and I need to come up with either a scheme better than Madoc’s or a way to make Madoc’s scheme safer for Oak.

I concentrate on what I am going to say to Vivi, instead of thinking of Cardan. I do not want to consider what happened between us. I do not want to think about the way his muscles moved or how his skin felt or the soft gasping sounds he made or the slide of his mouth against mine.

I definitely don’t want to think about how hard I had to bite my own lip to keep quiet. Or how obvious it was that I’d never done any of the things we did, no less the things we didn’t do.

Every time I think of any of it, I shove the memory away as fiercely as possible. I shove it along with the enormous vulnerability I feel, the feeling of being exposed down to my raw nerves. I do not know how I will face Cardan again without behaving like a fool.

If I cannot attack the problem of the Undersea and I cannot attack the

problem of Cardan, then perhaps I can take care of something else.

It is a relief to don a suit of dark fabric and high leather boots, to holster blades at my wrists and calves. It is a relief to do something physical, heading through the woods and then slyfooting my way into a poorly guarded house. When one of the residents comes in, my knife is at his throat faster than he can speak.

“Locke,” I say sweetly. “Are you surprised?”

He turns to me, dazzling smile faltering. “My blossom. What is this?”

After an astonished moment, I realize that he thinks I am Taryn. Can he really not tell the difference between us?

A bitter pit where my heart should be is pleased by the thought.

“If you think my sister would put a knife to your throat, perhaps you should delay your nuptials,” I tell him, taking a step back and pointing to a chair with the point. “Go ahead. Sit.”

He sits down just as I kick the chair, sending it backward and him sprawling to the floor. He rolls over, glaring at me with indignation. “Unchivalrous,” is all he says, but there’s something in his face that wasn’t there before.

Fear.

For five months I have tried to use every bit of restraint I learned over a lifetime of keeping my head down. I have tried to behave as though I had only dribs and drabs of power, an important servant’s power, and still keep in my head that I was in charge. A balancing act that makes me think of Val Moren’s lesson in juggling.

I have allowed the Locke situation to get out of hand.

I place my foot on his chest, pressing down a little to remind him that if I kicked hard, it could shatter bone.

“I am done with being polite. We’re not going to play word games or make up riddles. Humiliating the High King is a bad idea. Humiliating me is a terrible idea. Running around on my sister is just dumb. Maybe you thought I was too busy to take my revenge? Well, Locke, I want you to understand that for you, I will make time.”

His face pales. He’s obviously not sure what to make of me right now. He knows I stabbed Valerian once, but he doesn’t know I killed him, nor that I have killed since then. He has no idea I became a spy and then a spymaster. Even the sword fight with Taryn was something he only heard about.

“Making you Queen of Mirth was a jest,” Locke says, gazing up at me from the floor with a kind of fondness in his fox eyes, a little smile on the corner of his mouth, as though he’s willing me to grin along with him. “Come on, Jude, let me up. Am I really to believe you’d harm me?”

My voice is mock-sweet. “You once accused me of playing the great game. What was it you called it: ‘the game of kings and princes, of queens and crowns’? But to play it well, I must be pitiless.”

He begins to get up, but I press down harder with my foot and shift the grip on my knife. He stops moving. “You always liked stories,” I remind him. “You said you wanted to create the sparks of stories. Well, the tale of a twin who murders her sister’s betrothed is a good one, don’t you think?”

He closes his eyes and holds out his empty hands. “Peace, Jude. Perhaps I overplayed my hand. But I cannot believe you want to murder me for it. Your sister would be devastated.”

“Better she never be a bride than wind up a widow,” I say, but take my foot off his chest. He gets up slowly, dusting himself off. Once on his feet, he looks around the room as though he doesn’t quite recognize his own manor now that he’s seen it from the vantage of the floor.

“You’re right,” I continue. “I don’t want to harm you. We are to be family. You will be my brother and I your sister. Let us make friends. But to do that, I need you to do some things for me.

“First, stop trying to make me uncomfortable. Stop trying to turn me into a character in one of your dramas. Pick another target to weave stories around.

“Second, whatever your issue is with Cardan, whatever pushed you to make such a meal of toying with him, whatever made you think it was a fun to steal his lover and then throw her over for a mortal girl—as though you wanted him to know the thing dearest to him was worth nothing to you—let it go. Whatever made you decide to make me Queen of Mirth to torment him with the feelings you suspected he had, leave off. He’s the High King, and it’s too dangerous.”

“Dangerous,” he says, “but fun.”

I don’t smile. “Humiliate the king before the Court, and the courtiers will spread rumors and his subjects will forget to be afraid. Soon, the lesser Courts will think they can go against him.”

Locke leans down to right the broken chair, leaning it against a nearby table when it becomes clear it won’t stand on its own. “Oh, fine, you’re angry with me. But think. You may be Cardan’s seneschal and you’ve obviously fascinated him with your hips and lips and warm mortal skin, but I know that in your heart, whatever he has promised you, you still hate him. You’d love to see him brought low in front of his entire Court. Why, if you hadn’t been dressed in rags and been laughed at, you’d probably have forgiven me for every wrongdoing I’ve ever committed against you, just for engineering that.”

“You’re wrong,” I say. He smiles. “Liar.”

“Even if I did like it,” I say. “It must end.”

He seems to be evaluating how serious I am and of what I am capable. I am sure he is seeing the girl he brought home, the one he kissed and tricked. He is wondering, probably not for the first time, how I lucked into being made seneschal, how I managed to get my hands on the crown of Elfhame to orchestrate my little brother’s putting it on Cardan’s head.

“The last thing is this,” I say. “You’re going to be faithful to Taryn. Unless she’s screwing around on you or with you, once you’re wed, there are going to be no more affairs.”

He stares at me in blankly. “Are you accusing me of not caring for your sister?” he asks.

“If I truly believed you didn’t care for Taryn, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

He gives a long sigh. “Because you’d murder me?”

“If you’re playing with Taryn, Madoc will murder you; I won’t even get a chance.”

I sheath my knife and head toward the door.

“Your ridiculous family might be surprised to find that not everything is solved by murder,” Locke calls after me.

“We would be surprised to find that,” I call back.

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