Chapter no 5

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

‌I am tossing fitfully in a nest of blankets and papers and scrolls on the rug before the fire when the Ghost wakes me. My fingers are stained with ink and wax. I look around, trying to recall when I got up, what I was writing and to whom.

The Roach stands in the open panel of the secret passageway into my rooms, watching me with his reflecting, inhuman eyes.

My skin is sweaty and cold. My heart races.

I can still taste poison, bitter and cloying, on my tongue.

“He’s at it again,” the Ghost says. I do not have to ask whom he means. I may have tricked Cardan into wearing the crown, but I have not yet learned the trick of making him behave with the gravitas of a king.

While I was off getting information, he was off with Locke. I knew there would be trouble.

I scrub my face with the calloused heel of my hand. “I’m up,” I say.

Still in my clothes from the night before, I brush off my jacket and hope for the best. Walking into my bedroom, I scrape my hair back, knotting it with a bit of leather and covering the mess with a velvet cap.

The Roach frowns at me. “You’re wrinkled. His Majesty isn’t supposed to go around with a seneschal who looks like she just rolled out of bed.”

“Val Moren had sticks in his hair for the last decade,” I remind him, taking a few partially dried mint leaves from my cabinet and chewing on them to take the staleness from my breath. The last High King’s seneschal was mortal, as I am, fond of somewhat unreliable prophecy, and widely considered to be

mad. “Probably the same sticks.”

The Roach harrumphs. “Val Moren’s a poet. Rules are different for poets.” Ignoring him, I follow the Ghost into the secret passage that leads to the heart of the palace, pausing only to check that my knives are still tucked away in the folds of my clothes. The Ghost’s footfalls are so silent that when there’s

not enough light for my human eyes to see, I might as well be entirely alone.

The Roach does not follow us. He heads in the opposite direction with a grunt.

“Where are we going?” I ask the darkness.

“His apartments,” the Ghost tells me as we emerge into a hall, a staircase below where Cardan sleeps. “There’s been some kind of disturbance.”

I have difficulty imagining what trouble the High King got into in his own rooms, but it doesn’t take long to discover. When we arrive, I spot Cardan resting among the wreckage of his furniture. Curtains ripped from their rods, the frames of paintings cracked, their canvases kicked through, furniture broken. A small fire smolders in a corner, and everything stinks of smoke and spilled wine.

Nor is he alone. On a nearby couch are Locke and two beautiful faeries—a boy and a girl—one with ram’s horns, the other with long ears that come to tufted points, like those of an owl. All of them are in an advanced state of undress and inebriation. They watch the room burn with a kind of grim fascination.

Servants cower in the hall, unsure if they should brave the king’s wrath and clean up. Even his guards seem intimidated. They stand awkwardly in the hall outside his massive doors—one barely hanging from its hinges—ready to protect the High King from any threat that isn’t himself.

“Carda—” I remember myself and sink into a bow. “Your Infernal


He turns and, for a moment, seems to look through me, as though he has no idea who I am. His mouth is painted gold, and his pupils are large with intoxication. Then his lip lifts in a familiar sneer. “You.”

“Yes,” I say. “Me.”

He gestures with the skin. “Have a drink.” His wide-sleeved linen hunting shirt hangs open. His feet are bare. I guess I should be glad he’s wearing pants.

“I have no head for liquor, my lord,” I say, entirely truthfully, narrowing my eyes in warning.

“Am I not your king?” he asks, daring me to contradict him. Daring me to refuse him. Obediently, because we are in front of people, I take the skin and tip it against my closed lips, pretending to take a long swallow.

I can tell he’s not fooled, but he doesn’t push it.

“Everyone else may leave us.” I indicate the faeries on the couch, including Locke. “You. Move. Now.”

The two I do not know turn toward Cardan beseechingly, but he barely seems to notice them and does not countermand me. After a long moment, they sulkily unfold themselves and see themselves out through the broken door.

Locke takes longer to get up. He smiles at me as he goes, an insinuating smile that I can’t believe I ever found charming. He looks at me as though we share secrets, although we don’t. We don’t share anything.

I think of Taryn waiting in my rooms as this merriment began. I wonder if she could hear it. I wonder if she’s used to staying up late with Locke, watching things burn.

The Ghost shakes his sandy head at me, eyes bright with amusement. He is in palace livery. To the knights in the hall and anyone else who might be looking, he is just another member of the High King’s personal guard.

“I’ll make sure everyone stays where they’re put,” the Ghost says, leaving through the doorway and issuing what sound like orders to the other knights.

“Well?” I say, looking around.

Cardan shrugs, sitting on the newly unoccupied couch. He picks at a piece of horsehair stuffing that is sticking out through the torn fabric. His every movement is languorous. It feels dangerous to rest my gaze on him for too long, as though he is so thoroughly debauched that it might be contagious. “There were more guests,” he says, as though that’s any explanation. “They left.”

“I can’t imagine why,” I say, voice as dry as I can make it.

“They told me a story,” Cardan says. “Would you like to hear it? Once upon a time, there was a human girl stolen away by faeries, and because of that, she swore to destroy them.”

“Wow,” I say. “That really is a testament to how much you suck as a king, to believe your reign is capable of destroying Faerie.”

Still, the words unnerve. I don’t want my motives to be considered. I ought not to be thought of as influential. I ought not to be thought of at all.

The Ghost returns from the hall, leaning the door against the frame, closing it as much as is possible. His hazel eyes are shadowed.

I turn back to Cardan. “That little story is not why I was sent for. What happened?”

“This,” he says, and staggers into the room with a bed in it. There, embedded deeply in the splintered wood of the headboard are two black bolts.

“You’re mad that one of your guests shot your bed?” I guess.

He laughs. “They weren’t aiming for the bed.” He pulls aside his shirt, and I see the hole in the cloth and a stripe of raw skin along his side.

My breath catches.

“Who did this?” the Ghost demands. And then, looking more closely at Cardan: “And why aren’t the guards outside more upset? They don’t behave as though they failed to prevent an assassination attempt.”

Cardan shrugs. “I believe the guards think I was taking aim at my guests.”

I take a step closer and notice a few drops of blood on one of the disarranged pillows. There are a few scattered white flowers, too, seeming to grow out of the fabric. “Did someone else get hit?”

He nods. “The bolt hit her leg, and she was screaming and not making very much in the way of sense. So you see how someone might conclude that I shot her when no one else was around. The actual shooter went back into the walls.” He narrows his eyes at the Ghost and me, tilting his head, accusation burning in his gaze. “There seems to be some sort of secret passageway.”

The Palace of Elfhame is built into a hill, with High King Eldred’s old apartments at the very center, their walls crawling with roots and blooming vines. The whole Court assumed that Cardan would take those, but he moved to the farthest place possible from them, at the very peak of the hill, with crystal panes set into the earth like windows. Before his coronation, they had belonged to the least favored of the royal household. Now the residents of the palace scramble to rearrange themselves so they can be closer to the new High King. And Eldred’s rooms—abandoned and too grand for anyone else to rightfully claim—remain empty.

I know of only a few ways into Cardan’s rooms—a single, large, thick- glassed window enchanted never to break, a pair of double doors, and apparently, a secret passage.

“It’s not on the map of tunnels we have,” I tell him. “Ah,” he says. I am not sure he believes me.

“Did you see who shot at you? And why didn’t you tell your own guards what really happened?” I demand.

He gives me an exasperated look. “I saw a blur of black. And as to why I didn’t correct the guards—I was protecting you and the Court of Shadows. I didn’t think you would want the whole royal guard in your secret passageways!”

To that, I have no answer. The disturbing thing about Cardan is how well he plays the fool to disguise his own cleverness.

Opposite the bed is a cabinet built into the wall, taking the whole length of it. It has a painted clock face on the front, with constellations instead of numbers. The arms of the clock are pointed toward a configuration of stars

prophesying a particularly amorous lover.

Inside, it appears merely a wardrobe overstuffed with Cardan’s clothing. I pull them out, letting them fall to the floor in a pile of velvet cuffs, satin, and leather. From the bed, Cardan makes a sound of mock distress.

I press my ear to the wood backing, listening for the whistle of wind and feeling for a draft. The Ghost does the same on the other side. His fingers find a latch, and a thin door springs open.

Although I knew the palace was riddled with passageways, I never would have dreamed one was in Cardan’s very bedroom. And yet… I should have combed over every inch of wall. I could have, at the least, asked one of the other spies to do so. But I avoided it, because I avoided being alone with Cardan.

“Stay with the king,” I tell the Ghost and, picking up a candle, head into the darkness beyond the wall, avoiding being alone with him again.

The tunnel is dim, lit throughout with golden hands holding torches that burn with a smokeless green flame. The stone floor is covered in a threadbare carpet, a strangely decorative detail for a secret passageway.

A few feet in, I find the crossbow. It is not the compact thing that I have carried. It’s massive, more than half my size, obviously dragged here—I can see the way the carpet is rucked up in the direction whence it came.

Whoever shot it, shot it from here.

I jump over and keep going. I would expect a passageway like this to have many branches, but this one has none. It dips down at intervals, like a ramp, and turns in on itself, but it runs in only one direction—straight ahead. I hurry, faster and faster, my hand cupped around my candle flame to keep it from going out.

Then I come to a heavy wooden slab carved with the royal crest, the same one stamped in Cardan’s signet ring.

I give it a push, and it shifts, clearly on a track. There’s a bookshelf on the other side.

Until now, I have only heard stories of the great majesty of High King Eldred’s rooms in the very heart of the palace, just above the brugh, the great branches of the throne itself snaking through his walls. Although I’ve never seen them before, the descriptions make it impossible to think I am anywhere else.

I walk through the enormous, cavernous rooms of Eldred’s apartments, candle in one hand, a knife in the other.

And there, sitting on the High King’s bed, her face stained with tears, is Nicasia.

Orlagh’s daughter, Princess of the Undersea, fostered in the High King’s

Court as part of the decades-ago treaty of peace between Orlagh and Eldred, Nicasia was once part of the foursome made up of Cardan and his closest, most awful friends. She was also his beloved, until she betrayed him for Locke. I haven’t seen her by Cardan’s side as often since he ascended to the throne, but ignoring her hardly seems like a killing offense.

Is this what Balekin was whispering about with the Undersea? Is this the way Cardan was to be ruined?

You?” I shout. “You shot Cardan?”

“Don’t tell him!” She glares at me furiously, wiping wet eyes. “And put away that knife.”

Nicasia wears a robe, heavily embroidered with phoenixes and wrapped tightly around herself. Three earrings shine along her lobes, snaking up the ear all the way to their bluish webbed points. Her hair has gotten darker since I saw it last. It was always the many colors of the sea, but now it is the sea in a storm—a deep greenish black.

“Are you out of your mind?” I yell. “You tried to assassinate the High King of Faerie.”

“I didn’t,” she says. “I swear. I only meant to kill the girl he was with.” For a moment, I am too stunned by the cruelty and indifference to speak.

I take another look at her, at the robe she’s clutching so tightly. With her words echoing in my head, I suddenly have a clear idea of what happened. “You thought to surprise him in his rooms.”

“Yes,” she says.

“But he wasn’t alone.…” I continue, hoping she will take up the tale. “When I saw the crossbow on the wall, it didn’t seem it would be so

difficult to aim,” she says, forgetting the part about dragging it up through the passageway, though it’s heavy and awkward and that couldn’t have been easy. I wonder how angry she was, how unthinking in her rage.

Of course, perhaps she was thinking entirely clearly.

“It’s treason, you know,” I say aloud. I am shaking, I realize. The aftereffects of believing someone tried to assassinate Cardan, of realizing he could have died. “They’ll execute you. They’ll make you dance yourself to death in iron shoes heated hot as pokers. You’ll be lucky if they put you in the Tower of Forgetting.”

“I am a Princess of the Undersea,” she says haughtily, but I can see the shock on her face as my words register. “Exempt from the laws of the land. Besides, I told you I wasn’t aiming for him.”

Now I understand the worst of her behavior in school: She thought she could never be punished.

“Have you ever used a crossbow before?” I ask. “You put his life at risk.

He could have died. You idiot, he could have died.” “I told you—” she starts to repeat herself.

“Yes, yes, the compact between the sea and the land,” I interrupt her, still furious. “But it just so happens I know that your mother is intent on breaking the treaty. You see, she will say it was between Queen Orlagh and High King Eldred, not Queen Orlagh and High King Cardan. It doesn’t apply any longer. Which means it won’t protect you.”

At that, Nicasia gapes at me, afraid for the first time. “How did you know that?”

I wasn’t sure, I think but do not say. Now I am.

“Let’s assume I know everything,” I tell her instead. “Everything. Always. Yet I’m willing to make a deal with you. I’ll tell Cardan and the guard and the rest of them that the shooter got away, if you do something for me.”

“Yes,” she says before I even lay out the conditions, making the depth of her desperation clear. For a moment, a desire for vengeance rises in me. Once, she laughed at my humiliation. Now I could gloat before hers.

This is what power feels like, pure unfettered power. It’s great.

“Tell me what Orlagh is planning,” I say, pushing those thoughts away.

“I thought you knew everything already,” she returns sulkily, shifting so she can rise from the bed, one hand still clutching her robe. I guess she is wearing very little, if anything, underneath.

You should have just gone in, I want to tell her, suddenly. You should have told him to forget the other girl. Maybe he would have.

“Do you want to buy my silence or not?” I ask, sitting down on the edge of the cushions. “We have only a certain amount of time before someone comes looking for me. If they see you, it will be too late for denials.”

Nicasia gives a long-suffering sigh. “My mother says he is a young and weak king, that he lets others influence him too much.” With that, she gives me a hard look. “She believes he will give in to her demands. If he does, then nothing will change.”

“And if he doesn’t…?”

Her chin comes up. “Then the truce between land and sea will be over, and it will be the land that suffers. The Isles of Elfhame will sink beneath the waves.”

“And then what?” I ask. “Cardan is unlikely to make out with you if your mom floods the place.”

“You don’t understand. She wants us to be married. She wants me to be queen.”

I am so surprised that, for a moment, I just stare at her, fighting down a kind of wild, panicky laughter. “You just shot him.”

The look she gives me is beyond hatred. “Well, you murdered Valerian, did you not? I saw him the night he disappeared, and he was talking about you, talking about paying you back for stabbing him. People say he died at the coronation, but I don’t think he did.”

Valerian’s body is buried on Madoc’s estate, beside the stables, and if it was unearthed, I would have heard about it before now. She’s guessing.

And so what if I did, anyway? I am at the right hand of the High King of Faerie. He can pardon my every crime.

Still, the memory of it brings back the terror of fighting for my life. And it reminds me how she would have delighted in my death the way she delighted in everything Valerian did or tried to do to me. The way she delighted in Cardan’s hatred.

“Next time you catch me committing treason, you can force me to tell you my secrets,” I say. “But right now I’d rather hear what your mother intends to do with Balekin.”

“Nothing,” Nicasia says.

“And here I thought the Folk couldn’t lie,” I tell her.

Nicasia paces the room. Her feet are in slippers, the points of which curl up like ferns. “I’m not! Mother believes Cardan will agree to her terms. She’s just flattering Balekin. She lets him believe he’s important, but he won’t be. He won’t.”

I try to piece the plot together. “Because he’s her backup plan if Cardan refuses to marry you.”

My mind is reeling with the certainty that above all else, I cannot allow Cardan to marry Nicasia. If he did, it would be impossible to prize both of them from the throne. Oak would never rule.

I would lose everything.

Her gaze narrows. “I’ve told you enough.”

“You think we’re still playing some kind of game,” I say.

“Everything’s a game, Jude,” she says. “You know that. And now it’s your move.” With those words, she heads toward the enormous doors and heaves one open. “Go ahead and tell them if you want, but you should know this— someone you trust has already betrayed you.” I hear the slap of her slippers on stone, and then the heavy slam of wood against the frame.

My thoughts are a riot of confusion as I make my way back through the passageway. Cardan is waiting for me in the main room of his chambers, reclining on a couch with a shrewd look on his face. His shirt is still open, but a fresh bandage covers his wound. Across his fingers, a coin dances—I recognize the trick as one of the Roach’s.

Someone you trust has already betrayed you.

From the shattered remains of the door, the Ghost looks in from where he stands with the High King’s personal guard. He catches my eye.

“Well?” Cardan asks. “Have you discovered aught of my erstwhile murderer?”

I shake my head, not quite able to give speech to the lie. I look around at the wreckage of these rooms. There is no way for them to be secure, and they reek of smoke. “Come on,” I say, taking Cardan’s arm and pulling him unsteadily to his feet. “You can’t sleep here.”

“What happened to your cheek?” he asks, his gaze focusing blurrily on me. He’s close enough that I can see his long lashes, the gold ring around the black of his iris.

“Nothing,” I say.

He lets me squire him into the hall. As we emerge, the Ghost and the rest of the guards move immediately to stand at attention.

“At ease,” says Cardan with a wave of his hand. “My seneschal is taking me somewhere. Worry not. I am sure she’s got a plan of some kind.”

His guards fall in line behind us, some of them frowning, as I half-lead him, half-carry him to my chambers. I hate taking him there, but I do not feel confident about his safety anywhere else.

He looks around in amazement, taking in the mess. “Where—Do you really sleep here? Perhaps you ought to set fire to your rooms as well.”

“Maybe,” I say, guiding him to my bed. It is strange to put my hand on his back. I can feel the warmth of his skin through the thin linen of his shirt, can feel the flex of his muscles.

It feels wrong to touch him as though he were a regular person, as though he weren’t both the High King and also my enemy.

He needs no encouragement to sprawl on my mattress, head on the pillow, black hair spilling like crow feathers. He looks up at me with his night- colored eyes, beautiful and terrible all at once. “For a moment,” he says, “I wondered if it wasn’t you shooting bolts at me.”

I make a face at him. “And what made you decide it wasn’t?” He grins up at me. “They missed.”

I have said that he has the power to deliver a compliment and make it hurt. So, too, he can say something that ought to be insulting and deliver it in such a way that it feels like being truly seen.

Our eyes meet, and something dangerous sparks.

He hates you, I remind myself.

“Kiss me again,” he says, drunk and foolish. “Kiss me until I am sick of


I feel those words, feel them like a kick to the stomach. He sees my

expression and laughs, a sound full of mockery. I can’t tell which of us he’s laughing at.

He hates you. Even if he wants you, he hates youMaybe he hates you the more for it.

After a moment, his eyes flutter closed. His voice falls to a whisper, as though he’s talking to himself. “If you’re the sickness, I suppose you can’t also be the cure.”

He drifts off to sleep, but I am wide awake.

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