Chapter no 25

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

‌I get up, grass stains on my knees, my palms stinging and dirty. My head feels unsteady, as though I am still expecting to move with the current even though I am on land.

Taking a few deep breaths, I drink in the feeling of the wind on my face and the sounds of it rustling the leaves of the trees. I am surrounded by the scents of land, of Faerie, of home.

I keep thinking about what Dulcamara said: that Cardan refused to retaliate for the sake of my safe return. That can’t have made his subjects happy with him. I am not sure even Madoc would think it was a good strategy. Which is why it’s difficult to imagine why he agreed to it, especially since, if I stayed stuck in the Undersea, he’d be out of my control. I never thought he liked me enough to save me. And I am not sure I’ll still believe it unless I hear his reasons from his lips.

But for whatever reason he brought me back, I need to warn him about the Ghost, about Grimsen and the crown, about Balekin’s plan to make me into his murderer.

I start toward the palace on foot, sure it will take the guards far longer to realize I have gone than it would take the stable hands to discover a missing mount. Still, I am breathing hard soon after I start. Halfway there I have to stop and rest on a stump.

You’re fine, I tell myself. Get up.

It takes me a long time to make it to the palace. As I walk toward the doors, I square my shoulders and try not to show just how exhausted I am.

“Seneschal,” one of the guards at the gate says. “Your pardon, but you are barred from the palace.”

You will never deny me an audience or give an order to keep me from your side. For a delirious moment, I wonder if I’ve been in the Undersea for longer than Taryn told me. Maybe a year and a day is up. But that’s impossible. I narrow my gaze. “By whose command?”

“Apologies, my lady,” another knight says. His name is Diarmad. I recognize him as a knight Madoc has his eye on, someone he would trust. “The general, your father, gave the order.”

“I have to see the High King,” I say, trying for a tone of command, but instead a note of panic creeps into my voice.

“The Grand General told us to call you a carriage if you came and, if necessary, ride in it with you. Do you expect you will require our presence?”

I stand there, furious and outmaneuvered. “No,” I say.

Cardan couldn’t refuse me an audience, but he could allow someone else to give the order. So long as Madoc didn’t ask for Cardan’s permission, it didn’t contradict my commands. And it wouldn’t be so hard to figure out the sort of things I might have commanded Cardan—after all, most of it was stuff Madoc would probably have ordered himself.

I knew that Madoc wanted to rule Faerie from behind the throne. It didn’t occur to me that he might find his way to Cardan’s side and cut me out.

They played me. Either together or separately, they played me. My stomach churns with anxiety.

The feeling of being fooled, the shame of it, haunts me. It tangles up my thoughts.

I recall Cardan sitting atop the dappled gray horse on the beach, his impassive face, furred cloak, and crown highlighting his resemblance to Eldred. I may have tricked him into his role, but I didn’t trick the land into receiving him. He has real power, and the longer he’s on the throne, the greater his power will become.

He’s become the High King, and he’s done it without me.

This is everything I feared when I came up with this stupid plan in the first place. Perhaps Cardan didn’t want this power at first, but now that he has it, it belongs to him.

But the worst part is that it makes sense that Cardan is out of my reach, for him to be inaccessible to me. Diarmad and the other knight’s stopping me at the palace doors is the fulfillment of a fear I’ve had since this masquerade began. And as terrible as it feels, it also seems more reasonable than what I’ve been trying to convince myself of for months—that I am the seneschal of the High King of Faerie, that I have real power, that I can keep this game going.

The only thing I wonder is why not let me languish beneath the sea?

Turning away from the palace, I head through the trees to where there’s an entrance into the Court of Shadows. I just hope I won’t run into the Ghost. If I do, I am not sure what will happen. But if I can get to the Roach and the Bomb, then maybe I can rest awhile. And get the information I need. And to send someone to slit Grimsen’s throat before he has completed making the new crown.

When I get there, though, I realize the entrance is collapsed. No, as I look at it more carefully, that’s not exactly right—there’s evidence of an explosion. Whatever destroyed this entrance did more damage than that.

I cannot breathe.

Kneeling in the pine needles, I try to understand what I am looking at, because it seems as though the Court of Shadows has been buried. This must have been the Ghost’s work—although the Bomb’s explosives could have done precise damage like this. When the Ghost said he wouldn’t let me have the Court of Shadows, I didn’t realize he meant to destroy it. I just hope Van and the Bomb are alive.

Please let them be alive.

And yet, without a way to find them, I am more trapped than ever.

Numbly, I wander back toward the gardens.

A group of faerie children has gathered around a lecturer. A Lark boy picks blue roses from the royal bushes, while Val Moren wanders beside him, smoking a long pipe, his scald crow perched on one shoulder.

His hair is unbrushed around his head, matted in places and braided with bright cloth and bells in others. Laugh lines crease the corners of his mouth.

“Can you get me inside the palace?” I ask him. It’s a long shot, but I don’t care about embarrassment anymore. If I can get inside, I can discover what happened to the Court of Shadows. I can get to Cardan.

Val Moren’s eyebrows rise. “Do you know what they are?” he asks me, waving a vague hand toward the boy, who turns to give us both a sharp-eyed look.

Maybe Val Moren cannot help me. Maybe Faerie is a place where a madman can play the fool and seem like a prophet—but maybe he is only a madman.

The Lark boy continues picking his bouquet, humming a tune. “Faeries…?” I ask.

“Yes, yes.” He sounds impatient. “The Folk of the Air. Insubstantial, unable to hold one shape. Like the seeds of flowers launched into the sky.”

The scald crow caws.

Val Moren takes a long pull on his pipe. “When I met Eldred, he rode up

on a milk-white steed, and all the imaginings of my life were as dust and ashes.”

“Did you love him?” I ask.

“Of course I did,” he tells me, but he sounds as though he’s talking about long ago, an old tale that he only needs to tell the way it was told before. “Once I met him, all the duty I felt for my family was rendered as frayed and worn as an old coat. And the moment his hands were on my skin, I would have burned my father’s mill to the ground to have him touch me again.”

“Is that love?” I ask.

“If not love,” he says, “something very like it.”

I think of Eldred as I knew him, aged and bent. But I also recall him the way he seemed younger when the crown was taken from his head. I wonder how much younger he would have grown had he not been cut down.

“Please,” I say. “Just help me get into the palace.”

“When Eldred rode up in his milk-white steed,” he says again, “he made me an offer. ‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘to the land under the hill, and I will feed you on apples and honey wine and love. You will never grow old, and all you wish to know, you may discover.’”

“That sounds pretty good,” I admit.

“Never make a bargain with them,” he tells me, taking my hand abruptly. “Not a wise one or a poor one, not a silly one or a strange one, but especially not one that sounds pretty good.”

I sigh. “I’ve lived here nearly all my life. I know that!”

My voice startles his crow, which leaps from his shoulder to fly up into the sky.

“Then know this,” Val Moren says, looking at me. “I may not help you. It was one of the things I gave up. I promised Eldred that once I became his, I would renounce all of humanity. I would never choose a mortal over a faerie.”

“But Eldred is dead,” I insist.

“And yet my promise remains.” He holds his hands in front of him in acknowledgement of his helplessness.

“We’re human,” I say. “We can lie. We can break our word.” But the look he turns on me is pitying, as though I am the one who is mistaken.

Watching him walk off, I make a decision. Only one person has a reason to help me, only one person I can be sure of.

You will come to Hollow Hall when you can, Balekin told me. Now is as good a time as any.

I force myself to walk, though the path through the Milkwood is not a direct one, and it passes too close to the sea for my comfort. When I look out at the water, a shudder comes over me. It will not be easy to live on an island

if I am tormented by waves.

I pass by the Lake of Masks. When I look down, I see three pixies staring back at me with apparent concern. I plunge my hands in and scrub my face with the fresh water. I even drink a little, even though it’s magical water and I’m not sure it’s safe. Still, fresh water was too dear for me to pass up an opportunity to have it.

Once Hollow Hall is in sight, I pause for a moment, to get breath and courage both.

I walk up to the door as boldly as I can. The knocker on the door is a piercing through the nose of a sinister, carved face. I lift my hand to touch the ring, and the carving’s eyes open.

“I remember you,” says the door. “My prince’s lady.” “You’re mistaken,” I say.

“Seldom.” The door swings open with a slight creak that indicates disuse. “Hail and welcome.”

Hollow Hall is empty of servants and guards. No doubt it is difficult for Prince Balekin to cozen any of the Folk to serve him when he is so clearly a creature of the Undersea. And I have effectively cut off his ability to trick mortals into the kind of horrible servitude in which he is most interested. I walk through echoing rooms to a parlor, where Balekin is drinking wine surrounded by a dozen thick pillar candles. Above his head, red moths dance. He left them behind in the Undersea, but now that he’s back, they circle around him like a candle flame.

“Did anyone see you?” he asks.

“I don’t believe so,” I say with a curtsy.

He stands, going to a long trestle table and lifting a small, blown glass vial. “I don’t suppose you’ve managed to murder my brother?”

“Madoc has ordered me away from the palace,” I say. “I think he fears my influence over the High King, but I can do nothing to Cardan if I am not allowed to see him.”

Balekin takes another sip of his wine and walks to me. “There’s to be a ball, a masquerade to honor one of the lower Court lords. It will be tomorrow, and so long as you are able to steal away from Madoc, I will find a way to get you in. Can you acquire a costume and mask yourself, or will you need that from me as well?”

“I can costume myself,” I say.

“Good.” He holds up the vial. “Stabbing would be very dramatic at such a public function, but poison is ever so much easier. I want you to carry this with you until you have a moment alone with him, then you must add it to his wine in secret.”

“I will,” I vow.

Then he takes my chin, glamour in his voice. “Tell me that you’re mine, Jude.”

When he places the vial in my hand, my fingers close over it.

“I am your creature, Prince Balekin,” I say, looking into his eyes and lying with my whole broken heart. “Do with me what you will. I am yours.”

You'll Also Like