Chapter no 17

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

‌I n the five months that Vivi and Oak have been gone, I have visited the mortal world only twice. Once to help them set up their apartment, and the second time for a wine party Heather threw for Vivi’s birthday. At it, Taryn and I sat awkwardly on the edge of a couch, eating cheese with oily olives, being allowed little sips of Shiraz by college girls because we were “too young to legally drink.” My nerves were on edge the whole night, wondering what trouble was happening in my absence.

Madoc had sent Vivi a present, and Taryn had faithfully carried it across the sea—a golden dish of salt that never emptied. Turn it over, and it’s full again. I found it to be a nervous-making present, but Heather had only laughed, as though it was some kind of novelty with a trick bottom.

She didn’t believe in magic.

How Heather was going to react to Taryn’s wedding was anyone’s guess. All I hoped was that Vivienne had warned her about at least some of what was about to happen. Otherwise, the news that mermaids were real was going to come along with the news that mermaids were out to get us. I didn’t think “all at once” was the ideal way to hear any of that news.

After midnight, the Roach and I go across the sea in a boat made of river rushes and breath. We carry a cargo of mortals who have been tunneling out new rooms in the Court of Shadows. Taken from their beds just after dusk, they will be returned just before dawn. When they wake, they will find gold coins scattered in their sheets and filling their pockets. Not faerie gold, which blows away like dandelion puffs and leaves behind leaves and stones, but real

gold—a month’s wages for a single stolen night.

You might think I am heartless to allow this, no less order it. Maybe I am. But they made a bargain, even if they didn’t understand with whom they were making it. And I can promise that besides the gold, all they are left with in the morning is exhaustion. They will not remember their journey to Elfhame, and we will not take them twice.

On the trip over, they sit quietly on the boat, lost in dreams as the swells of the sea and the wind propel us witherward. Overhead, Snapdragon keeps pace, looking for trouble. I gaze at the waves and think of Nicasia, imagine webbed hands on the sides of the vessel, imagine sea Folk clawing their way aboard.

You can’t fight the sea, Locke said. I hope he’s wrong.

Near the shore, I climb out, stepping into the shock of icy water at my calves and black rocks under my feet, then clamber over them, leaving the boat to come apart as the Roach’s magic fades from it. Snapdragon heads off to the east to scout for future workers.

The Roach and I put each mortal to bed, occasionally beside a sleeping lover we take care not to wake as we ply them with gold. I feel like a faerie in a story, slyfooting my way through homes, able to drink the cream off the milk or put knots in a child’s hair.

“This is usually a lonely business,” the Roach says when we’re finished. “Your company was a pleasure. There’s hours yet between dawn and waking, come sup with me.”

It’s true that it’s still too early to pick up Vivi and Heather and Oak. It’s also true that I am hungry. I have a tendency these days to put off eating until I am ravenous. I feel a little like a snake, either starved or swallowing a mouse whole. “Okay.”

The Roach suggests we go to a diner. I do not tell him I’ve never been to one. Instead, I follow him through the woods. We come out near a highway. Across the road rests a building, brightly lit and shiny with chrome. Beside it is a sign proclaiming it to be open twenty-four hours, and the parking lot is enormous, big enough even for several trucks already parked there. This early in the morning, there is barely any traffic, and we are able to ford the highway easily.

Inside, I slide obediently into the booth he chooses. He snaps his fingers, and the little box beside our table springs to life, blaring music. I flinch, surprised, and he laughs.

A waitress comes by the table, a pen with a thoroughly chewed cap stuck behind her ear, like in the movies. “Something to drink?” she says, the words running together so that it takes a moment to understand she’s asked a


“Coffee,” the Roach says. “Black as the eyes of the High King of Elfhame.”

The waitress just stares at him for a long blink, then scratches something on her pad and turns to me.

“Same,” I say, not sure what else they have.

When she’s gone, I open the menu and look at the pictures. It turns out they have everything. Piles of food. Chicken wings, bright and gleaming with glaze beside little pots of white sauce. A pile of chopped potatoes, fried to a turn, topped with crisped sausages and bubbling eggs. Wheat cakes larger than my spread hand, buttered and glistening with syrup.

“Did you know,” the Roach inquires. “Your people once believed the Folk came and took the wholesomeness out of mortal food?”

“Did they?” I ask with a grin.

He shrugs. “Some tricks may be lost to time. But I grant that mortal food does possess a great deal of substance.”

The waitress comes back with hot coffees, and I warm my hands on the cup while the Roach orders fried pickles and buffalo wings, a burger, and a milkshake. I order an omelet with mushrooms and something called pepper jack cheese.

“So,” says the Roach. “When will you tell the king about his mother?” “She doesn’t want me to,” I say.

The Roach frowns. “You’ve made improvements in the Court of Shadows. You’re young, but you’re ambitious in the way that perhaps only the young can be. I judge you by three things and three things only—how square you are with us, how capable, and what you want for the world.”

“Where does Lady Asha come into any of that?” I ask, just as the waitress returns with our food. “Because I can already sense that she does. You didn’t open with that question for nothing.”

My omelet is enormous, an entire henhouse of eggs. My mushrooms are identically shaped, as though someone had ground up real mushrooms and then made cookie-cutter versions. They taste that way, too. With the Roach’s food piled up on the other side, soon the table is full to groaning.

He takes a bite of a wing and licks his lips with his black tongue. “Cardan is part of the Court of Shadows. We may play the world, but we don’t play one another. Hiding messages from Balekin is one thing. But his mother— does he even know she’s not dead?”

“You’re writing a tragedy for him without cause,” I say. “We have no reason to believe he doesn’t know. And he’s not one of us. He’s no spy.”

The Roach bites off the last piece of gristle from the chicken bones,

cracking it between his teeth. He’s finished the whole plate of them and, pushing it aside, starts on the pickles. “You made a bargain for me to train him, and I’ve taken him under my wing. Sleight of hand. Pickpocketing. Little magics. He’s good at it.”

I think of the coin playing across his long fingers while he slouched in the burnt remains of his rooms. I glare at the Roach.

He only laughs. “Don’t look at me like that. ’Twas you who made the bargain.”

I barely recall that part, so intent was I on getting Cardan to agree to a year and a day of service. So long as he pledged to me, I could put him on the throne. I would have promised him much more than lessons in spycraft.

But when I think of the night he was shot at, the night he did coin tricks, I can’t help recalling him gazing up from my bed, intoxicated and disturbingly intoxicating.

Kiss me until I am sick of it.

“And now he’s playacting, isn’t he?” the Roach goes on. “Because if he’s the true High King of Elfhame, whom we are to follow to the end of days, then we’ve been a mite disrespectful, running the kingdom for him. But if he is playacting, then he’s a spy for sure and better than most of us. Which makes him part of the Shadow Court.”

I drink down my coffee in a scalding swallow. “We can’t talk about this.” “Not at home we can’t,” the Roach says with a wink. “Which is why we’re


I asked him to seduce Nicasia. Yes, I guess I have been a “mite disrespectful” to the High King of Elfhame. And the Roach is right, Cardan didn’t behave as though he was too royal for my request. That wasn’t his reason for taking offense.

“Fine,” I say in defeat. “I’ll figure out a way to tell him.”

The Roach grins. “The food’s good here, right? Sometimes I miss the mortal world. But for good or ill, my work in Elfhame is not yet done.”

“Hopefully for good,” I say, and take a bite of the shredded potato cake that came with my omelet.

The Roach snorts. He’s moved on to his milkshake, the other plates bare and stacked up to one side of him. He lifts his mug in a salute. “To the triumph of goodness, just not before we get ours.”

“I want to ask you something,” I say, clinking my mug against his. “About the Bomb.”

“Leave her out of this,” he says, studying me. “And if you can, leave her out of your schemes against the Undersea. I know you’re always sticking your neck out as though you’re enamored of the axe, but if there must be a neck on

the chopping block beside you, choose a less comely one.” “Including your own?” I ask.

“Much better,” he agrees. “Because you love her?” I ask.

The Roach frowns at me. “And if I did? Would you lie to me about my chances?”

“No—” I begin, but he cuts me off.

“I love a good lie,” he says, standing and setting down little stacks of silver coins on the table. “I love a good liar even better, which is to your benefit. But some lies are not worth the telling.”

I bite my lip, unable to say anything else without spilling the Bomb’s secrets.

After the diner, we part ways, both of us with ragwort in our pockets. I watch him go, thinking of his claim on Cardan. I had been trying so hard not to think of him as the rightful High King of Elfhame that I had entirely missed asking myself whether he considered himself to be High King. And, if he didn’t, whether that meant he thought of himself as one of my spies instead.



I make my way to my sister’s apartment. Though I’ve donned mortal clothing to walk around the mall and tried to behave in such a way as would be above suspicion, it turns out that arriving in Maine in a doublet and riding boots draws a few stares but no fear that I have come from another world.

Perhaps I am part of a medieval festival, a girl suggests as I pass her. She went to one a few years ago and enjoyed the joust very much. She had a large turkey leg and tried mead for the first time.

“It goes to your head,” I tell her. She agrees.

An elderly man with a newspaper remarks that I must be doing Shakespeare in the park. A few louts on some steps call out to me that Halloween is in October.

The Folk doubtlessly learned this lesson long ago. They do not need to deceive humans. Humans will deceive themselves.

It is with this fresh in my mind that I cross a lawn full of dandelions, go up the steps to my sister’s door, and knock.

Heather opens it. Her pink hair is freshly dyed for the wedding. For a moment, she looks taken aback—probably by my outfit—and then smiles, opening the door wide. “Hi! Thanks for being willing to drive. Everything’s

mostly packed. Is your car big enough?”

“Definitely,” I lie, looking around the kitchen for Vivi with a kind of desperation. How is my big sister thinking this is going to go if she hasn’t told Heather anything? If she believes I have a car instead of ragwort stalks.

“Jude!” Oak yells, hopping down from his seat at the table. He throws his arms around me. “Can we go? Are we going? I made everyone presents at school.”

“Let’s see what Vivi says,” I tell him, and give him a squeeze. He’s more solid than I remembered. Even his horns seem slightly longer, although he can’t have grown that much in just a few months, can he?

Heather throws a switch, and the coffeepot starts chugging away. Oak climbs onto a chair and pours candy-colored cereal into a bowl and begins eating it dry.

I sidle past and head into the next room. There’s Heather’s desk, piled with sketches and markers and paints. Prints of her work are taped to the wall above.

Besides making comics, Heather works part time at a copy shop to help cover bills. She believes Vivi has a job, too, which may or may not be a fiction. There are jobs for the Folk in the mortal world, just not the sort of jobs one tells one’s human girlfriend about.

Especially if one has conveniently never mentioned one isn’t human. Their furniture is a collection of stuff from garage sales, salvage places,

and the side of the road. Covering the walls are old plates with funny, big- eyed animals; cross-stitches with ominous phrases; and Heather’s collection of disco memorabilia, more of her art and Oak’s crayon drawings.

In one, Vivi and Heather and Oak are together, rendered as he sees them— Heather’s brown skin and pink hair, Vivi’s pale skin and cat eyes, Oak’s horns. I bet Heather thinks it’s adorable, how Oak made himself and Vivi into monsters. I bet she thinks it’s a sign of his creativity.

This is going to suck. I am prepared for Heather to yell at my sister—Vivi more than deserves it. But I don’t want Heather to hurt Oak’s feelings.

I find Vivi in her bedroom, still packing. It is small by comparison to the rooms we grew up in, and much less tidy than the rest of the apartments. Her clothes are everywhere. Scarves are draped over the headboard, bangles threaded on the pole of the footboard, shoes peeking out from underneath the bed.

I sit down on the mattress. “Where does Heather think she’s going today?”

Vivi gives me a big grin. “You got my message—looks like it’s possible to enchant birds to do useful things after all.”

“You don’t need me,” I remind her. “You are perfectly capable of making

all the ragwort horses you could ever need—something I can’t do.”

“Heather believes we are attending the wedding of my sister Taryn, which we are, to an island off the coast of Maine, which we also are. See? Not a single lie was told.”

I begin to understand why I was roped in. “And when she wanted to drive, you said your sister would come pick you up.”

“Well, she assumed there would be a ferry, and I could hardly agree or disagree with that,” Vivi says with the breezy honesty that I’ve always liked and also been exasperated with.

“And now you’re going to have to tell the truthier truth,” I say. “Or—I have a proposal. Don’t. Keep putting it off. Don’t come to the wedding.”

“Madoc said you’d say that,” she tells me, frowning.

“It’s too dangerous—for complicated reasons I know you don’t care about,” I say. “The Queen of the Undersea wants her daughter to marry Cardan, and she’s working with Balekin, who has his own agenda. She’s probably playing him, but since she’s better at being worse than him, that’s not good.”

“You’re right,” Vivi says. “I don’t care. Politics are boring.” “Oak is in danger,” I say. “Madoc wants to use him as bait.”

“There’s always danger,” Vivi says, throwing a pair of boots on top of some crumpled dresses. “Faerie is one big mousetrap of danger. But if I let that keep us away, how could I look my stalwart father in the face?

“Not to mention my stalwart sister, who is going to keep us safe while father schemes his schemes,” Vivi continues. “At least, according to him.”

I groan. Just like him to cast me in a role I can’t deny, but which serves his purpose. And just like her to ignore me and believe that she knows best.

Someone you trust has already betrayed you.

I have trusted Vivi more than anyone else. I have trusted her with Oak, with the truth, with my plan. I have trusted her because she is my older sister, because she doesn’t care about Faerie. But it occurs to me that if she betrayed me, I would be undone.

I wish she wouldn’t keep reminding me she was talking to Madoc. “And you trust Dad? That’s a change.”

“He’s not good at a lot of things, but he knows about scheming,” Vivi says, which is not that reassuring. “Come on. Tell me about Taryn. Is she actually excited?”

How do I even answer? “Locke got himself made Master of Revels. She’s not exactly pleased about his new title or behavior. I think half the reason he likes to screw around is to get under her skin.”

“This is not boring,” Vivi says. “Go on.”

Heather comes into the room with two cups of coffee. We stop talking as she passes one to me and one to Vivi. “I didn’t know how you took it,” she says. “So I made it like Vee’s.”

I take a sip. It’s very sweet. I’ve already had plenty of coffee this morning, but I drink some more anyway.

Black as the eyes of the High King of Elfhame. Heather leans against the door. “You done packing?”

“Almost.” Vivi eyes her suitcase and then throws in a pair of rain boots. Then she looks around the room, as though she’s wondering what other stuff she can cram in.

Heather frowns. “You’re bringing all that for a week?”

“It’s just the top layer that’s clothes,” Vivi says. “Underneath, it’s mostly stuff for Taryn that’s hard to get on the…island.”

“Do you think what I’m planning on wearing will be okay?” I can understand why Heather is worried, since she’s never met my family. She believes our dad is strict. She has no idea.

“Sure,” Vivi says, and then looks at me. “It’s a hot silver dress.”

“Wear anything you want. Really,” I tell Heather, thinking of how gowns and rags and nakedness are all acceptable in Faerie. She’s about to have much bigger problems.

“Hurry up. We don’t want to get stuck in traffic,” Heather says, and goes out again. In the other room, I hear her talking to Oak, asking him if he wants some milk.

“So,” Vivi says, “You were saying…”

I let out a long sigh and gesture with my coffee cup toward the door, bugging out my eyes.

Vivi shakes her head. “Come on. You won’t be able to tell me any of this once we’re there.”

“You know already,” I say. “Locke is going to make Taryn unhappy. But she doesn’t want to hear that, and she especially doesn’t want to hear it from me.”

“You did once have a sword fight over him,” Vivi points out. “Exactly,” I say. “I’m not objective. Or I don’t seem objective.”

“You know what I wonder about, though,” she says, closing her suitcase and sitting on it to squish it down. She looks up at me with her cat eyes, twin to Madoc’s. “You’ve manipulated the High King of Faerie into obeying you, but you can’t find a way to manipulate one jerk into keeping our sister happy?”

Not fair, I want to say. Practically the last thing I did before I came here was threaten Locke, ordering him not to cheat on Taryn after they got married

—or else. Still, her words rankle. “It’s not that simple.” She sighs. “I guess nothing ever is.”

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