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Chapter no 24

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

‌The next day my head pounds as I am once again dressed, and my hair is braided. Merfolk put me in my own clothes—the silver dress I wore to Taryn’s wedding, now faded from exposure to salt and frayed from being picked at by Undersea creatures. They even strap Nightfell onto me, although the scabbard is rusted, and the leather looks as though something has been feasting on it.

Then I am taken to Balekin, dressed in the colors and wearing the sigil of the Undersea. He looks me over and hangs new pearls in my ears.

Queen Orlagh has assembled a huge procession of sea Folk. Merfolk, riders on enormous turtles and sharks, the selkies in their seal form, all cutting through the water. The Folk on the turtles carry long red banners that fan behind them.

I am seated on a turtle, beside a mermaid with two bandoliers of knives. She grips me firmly, and I do not struggle, though it is hard to keep still. Fear is terrible, but the combination of hope and fear is worse. I careen between the two, my heart beating so fast and my breaths coming so quickly that my insides feel bruised.

When we begin to rise, up and up and up, a sense of unreality grips me. We crest the surface in the narrow stretch between Insweal and Insmire.

On the shore of the island, Cardan sits in a fur-lined cloak, regal on a dappled gray steed. He is surrounded by knights in armor of gold and green. To one side of him is Madoc, on a sturdy roan. To the other is Nihuar. The trees are full of archers. The hammered gold of the oak leaves on Cardan’s

crown seems to glow in the dimming light of sunset.

I am shaking. I feel I may shake apart.

Orlagh speaks from her place at the center of our procession. “King of Elfhame, as we agreed, now that you have paid my price, I have secured the safe return of your seneschal. And I bring her to you escorted by the new Ambassador to the Undersea, Balekin, of the Greenbriar line, son of Eldred, your brother. We hope this choice will please you, since he knows so many customs of the land.”

Cardan’s face is impossible to read. He doesn’t look at his brother. Instead, his gaze goes impossibly to me. Everything in his demeanor is icy.

I am small, diminished, powerless.

I look down, because if I don’t, I am going to behave stupidly. You have paid my price, Orlagh said to him. What might he have done for my return? I try to recall my commands, to recall whether I forced his hand.

“You promised her whole and hale,” says Cardan.

“And you can see she is so,” Orlagh says. “My daughter Nicasia, Princess of the Undersea, will help her to the land with her own royal hands.”

“Help her?” says Cardan. “She ought to need no help. You have kept her in the damp and the cold for too long.”

“Perhaps you no longer want her,” Orlagh says. “Perhaps you would bargain for something else in her place, King of Elfhame.”

“I will have her,” he says, sounding both possessive and contemptuous at once. “And my brother will be your ambassador. It shall all be as we agreed.” He nods toward two guards, who wade out to where I am sitting and help me down, help me to walk. I am ashamed of my unsteady legs, of my weakness, of the ridiculousness of still being dressed in Oriana’s utterly unsuitable dress for a party long over.

“We are not yet at war,” says Orlagh. “Nor are we yet at peace. Consider well your next move, king of the land, now that you know the cost of defiance.”

The knights guide me onto the land and past the other folk. Neither Cardan nor Madoc turn as I pass them. A carriage is waiting a little ways into the trees, and I am loaded inside.

One knight removes her helm. I have seen her before, but I do not know her. “The general has instructed me to take you to his home,” she says.

“No,” I say. “I have to go to the palace.”

She does not contradict me, neither does she relent. “I must do as he says.” And although I know I ought to fight, that once upon a time I would have,

I don’t. I let her shut the door of the carriage. I lean back against the seats and close my eyes.

When I wake, the horses are kicking up dust in front of Madoc’s stronghold. The knight opens the door, and Gnarbone lifts me bodily from the carriage as easily as I might have lifted Oak, as though I am made of twigs and leaves instead of earthly flesh. He carries me to my old bedroom.

Tatterfell is waiting for us. She takes down my hair and strips off my dress, carrying away Nightfell and putting me into a shift. Another servant sets down a tray holding a pot of hot tea and a plate of venison bleeding onto toast. I sit on the rug and eat it, using the buttered bread to sop up the meat juices.

I fall asleep there, too. When I wake, Taryn is shaking me.

I blink hazily and stumble to my feet. “I’m up,” I say. “How long was I lying there?”

She shakes her head. “Tatterfell says that you’ve been out for the whole day and night. She worried that you had a human illness—that’s why she sent for me. Come on, at least get in bed.”

“You’re married now,” I say, recalling it suddenly. With that comes the memory of Locke and the riders, the earrings I was supposed to give her. It all feels so far away, so distant.

She nods, putting her wrist to my forehead. “And you look like a wraith.

But I don’t think you have a fever.”

“I’m fine,” I say, the lie coming automatically to my lips. I have to get to Cardan and warn him about the Ghost. I have to see the Court of Shadows.

“Don’t act so proud,” she says, and there are tears in her eyes. “You disappeared on my wedding night, and I didn’t even know you were gone until morning. I’ve been so frightened.

“When the Undersea sent word it had you, well, the High King and Madoc blamed each other. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Every morning, I went to the edge of the water and looked down, hoping I could see you. I asked all the mermaids if they could tell me if you were okay, but no one would.”

I try to imagine the panic she must have felt, but I can’t.

“They seem to have worked through their differences,” I say, thinking of them together at the beach.

“Something like it.” She makes a face, and I try to smile.

Taryn helps me into my bed, arranging the cushions behind me. I feel bruised all over, sore and ancient and more mortal than ever before.

“Vivi and Oak?” I ask. “Are they okay?”

“Fine,” she says. “Back home with Heather, who seems to have gotten through her visit to Faerieland without much drama.”

“She was glamoured,” I say.

For a moment, I see anger cross her face, raw and rare. “Vivi shouldn’t do that,” Taryn says.

I am relieved not to be the only one to feel that way. “How long have I been gone?”

“A little over a month,” she says, which seems impossibly brief. I feel as though I have aged a hundred years beneath the sea.

Not only that, but now I am more than halfway through the year and a day Cardan promised. I sink back on the cushions and close my eyes. “Help me get up,” I say.

She shakes her head. “Let the kitchens send up more soup.”

It isn’t difficult to persuade me. As a concession, Taryn helps me dress in clothes that were once too tight and now hang on me. She stays to feed me spoonfuls of broth.

When she’s ready to go, she pulls up her skirts and takes a long hunting knife out of a sheath attached to a garter. In that moment, it’s clear we grew up in the same house.

She puts the knife onto the coverlets beside a charm she takes from her pocket. “Here,” she says. “Take them. I know they’ll make you feel safer. But you must rest. Tell me you won’t do anything rash.”

“I can barely stand on my own.” She gives me a stern look. “Nothing rash,” I promise her.

She embraces me before she goes, and I hang a little too long on her shoulders, drinking in the human smell of sweat and skin. No ocean, no pine needles or blood or night-blooming flowers.

I doze off with my hand on her knife. I am not sure when I wake, but it’s to the sound of arguing.

“Whatsoever the Grand General’s orders, I am here to see the High King’s seneschal and I won’t be put off with any more excuses!” It’s a woman’s voice, one I half-recognize. I roll off the bed, heading dizzily out into the hall, where I can look down from the balcony. I spot Dulcamara from the Court of Termites. She looks up at me. There is a fresh cut on her face.

“Your pardon,” she calls in a way that makes it clear she means nothing of the sort. “But I must have an audience. In fact, I am here to remind you of your obligations, including that one.”

I recall Lord Roiben with his salt-white hair and the promise I made him for supporting Cardan half a year ago. He pledged to the crown and the new High King, but on a specific condition.

Someday, I will ask your king for a favor, he said.

What did I say in return? I tried to bargain: Something of equal value. And

within our power.

I guess he’s sent Dulcamara to call in that favor, though I do not know what use I am to be when I am like this.

“Is Oriana in her parlor? If not, show Dulcamara to it, and I will speak with her there,” I say, gripping the railing so that I don’t fall. Madoc’s guards look unhappy, but they don’t contradict me.

“This way,” says one of the servants, and with a last hostile look at me, Dulcamara follows.

This leaves me time to make my unsteady way down the stairs.

“Your father’s orders were that you not go out,” one of the guards says, used to my being a child to be minded and not the High King’s seneschal with whom one might behave with more formality. “He wanted you to rest.”

“By which you mean he didn’t order me not to have audiences here, but only because he didn’t think of it.” The guard doesn’t contradict me, only frowns. “His concerns—and yours—are noted.”

I manage to make it to Oriana’s parlor without falling over. And if I hold slightly too long to the wooden trim around windows or to the edges of tables, that’s not so awful.

“Bring us some tea please, as hot as you can make it,” I say to a servant who watches me a little too closely.

Steeling myself, I let go of the wall and walk into the parlor, give Dulcamara a nod, and sink into a chair, although she has remained standing, hands clasped behind her back.

“Now we see what your High King’s loyalty looks like,” she says, taking a step toward me, her face hostile enough that I wonder if her purpose is more than speaking.

Instinct wants to push me to my feet. “What happened?”

At that, she laughs. “You know very well. Your king gave the Undersea permission to attack us. It came two nights ago, out of nowhere. Many of our people were slain before we understood what was happening, and now we are being forbidden from retaliating.”

“Forbidden from retaliating?” I think of what Orlagh said about not being at war, but how can the land not be at war if the sea has already attacked? As the High King, Cardan owes his subjects the might of his military—of Madoc’s army—when they are under threat. But to deny permission of striking back was unheard of.

She bares her teeth. “Lord Roiben’s consort was hurt,” she says. “Badly.”

The green-skinned, black-eyed pixie who spoke as though she were mortal. The one that the terrifying leader of the Court of Termites deferred to, laughed with.

“Is she going to live?” I ask, my voice gone soft.

“You best hope so, mortal,” Dulcamara says. “Or Lord Roiben will bend his will to the destruction of your boy king, despite the vows he made.”

“We’ll send you knights,” I say. “Let Elfhame rectify our mistake.”

She spits on the ground. “You don’t understand. Your High King did this for you. Those were the terms under which Queen Orlagh would return you. Balekin chose the Court of Termites as the target, the Undersea attacked us, and your Cardan let her. There was no mistake.”

I close my eyes and pinch the bridge of my nose. “No,” I say. “That’s not possible.”

“Balekin has long had a grudge against us, daughter of dirt.”

I flinch at the insult, but I do not correct her. She may rail at me all she likes. The High Court has failed the Court of Termites because of me.

“We should never have joined the High Court. We should never have pledged to your fool of a king. I have come to deliver that message and one message more. You owe Lord Roiben a favor, and it best be granted.”

I worry over what he might ask me for. An unnamed favor is a dangerous thing to give, even for a mortal who cannot be forced to honor it.

“We have our own spies, seneschal. They tell us you’re a good little murderer. Here is what we want—kill Prince Balekin.”

“I can’t do that,” I say, too astonished to weigh my words. I am not insulted by her praise of my skill at killing, but setting me an impossible task is hardly flattery, either. “He’s an ambassador of the Undersea. If I killed him, we’d be at war.”

“Then go to war.” With that, she sweeps from the room, leaving me sitting in Oriana’s parlor when the steaming tray of tea comes in.

 

 

Once she is gone and the tea is cold, I climb the steps to my room. There, I take up Taryn’s knife and the other one hidden under my bed. I take the edge of one to the pocket of my dress, slicing through it so I can strap the knife to my thigh and draw it swiftly. There are plenty of weapons in Madoc’s house

—including my own Nightfell—but if I start looking for them and belting them on properly, the guards are sure to notice. I need them to believe I have gone docilely back to bed.

Padding to the mirror, I look to see if the knife is concealed beneath my dress. For a moment, I don’t know the person looking back at me. I am

horrified at what I see—my skin has a sickly pallor, my weight has dropped enough to make my limbs look frail and sticklike, my face gaunt.

I turn away, not wanting to look anymore.

Then I go out onto the balcony instead. Normally, it would be no small thing to climb over the railing and scale the wall down to the lawn. But as I put one leg over, I realize how rubbery my legs and arms have become. I don’t think I can manage the climb.

So I do the next best thing: I jump.

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