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Chapter no 6

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

‌All through the morning I sit on a chair tipped back against the wall of my own bedroom. My father’s sword is across my lap. My mind keeps going over her words.

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

Though I am across the floor from him, my gaze strays often to the bed and to the boy sleeping there.

His black eyes closed, his dark hair spilling over my pillow. At first, he could not seem to get comfortable, tangling his feet in the sheets, but eventually his breathing smoothed out and so did his movements. He is as ridiculously beautiful as ever, mouth soft, lips slightly parted, lashes so long that when his eyes are closed they rest against his cheek.

I am used to Cardan’s beauty, but not to any vulnerability. It feels uncomfortable to see him without his fanciful clothes, without his acid tongue, and malicious gaze for armor.

Over the five months of our arrangement, I have tried to anticipate the worst. I have issued commands to prevent him from avoiding, ignoring, or getting rid of me. I’ve figured out rules to prevent mortals from being tricked into years-long servitude and gotten him to proclaim them.

But it never seems like enough.

I recall walking with him in the gardens of the palace at dusk. Cardan’s hands were clasped behind his back, and he stopped to sniff the enormous globe of a white rose tipped with scarlet, just before it snapped at the air. He

grinned and lifted an eyebrow at me, but I was too nervous to smile back.

Behind him, at the edge of the garden, were a half dozen knights, his personal guard, to which the Ghost was already assigned.

Although I went over and over what I was about to tell him, I still felt like the fool who believes she can trick a dozen wishes from a single one if she just gets the phrasing right. “I am going to give you orders.”

“Oh, indeed,” he said. On his brow, the crown of Elfhame’s gold caught the light of the sunset.

I took a breath and began. “You’re never to deny me an audience or give an order to keep me from your side.”

“Whysoever would I want you to leave my side?” he asked, voice dry. “And you may never order me arrested or imprisoned or killed,” I said,

ignoring him. “Nor hurt. Nor even detained.”

“What about asking a servant to put a very sharp pebble in your boot?” he asked, expression annoyingly serious.

I gave him what I hoped was a scathing look in return. “Nor may you raise a hand against me yourself.”

He made a gesture in the air, as though all of this was ridiculously obvious, as though somehow giving him the commands out loud was an act of bad faith.

I went doggedly on. “Each evening, you will meet me in your rooms before dinner, and we will discuss policy. And if you know of harm to be done to me, you must warn me. You must try to prevent anyone from guessing how I control you. And no matter how much you hate being High King, you must pretend otherwise.”

“I don’t,” he said, looking up at the sky.

I turned to him, surprised. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t hate being High King,” he said. “Not always. I thought I would, and yet I do not. Make of that what you will.”

I was unnerved, because it was a lot easier when I knew he was not just unsuitable for, but also uninterested in, ruling. Whenever I looked at the Blood Crown on his head, I had to pretend it away.

It didn’t help how immediately he’d convinced the Gentry of his right to preside over them. His reputation for cruelty made them wary of crossing him. His license made them believe all delights were possible.

“So,” I said. “You enjoy being my pawn?”

He grinned lazily, as though he didn’t mind being baited. “For now.” My gaze sharpened. “For far longer than that.”

“You’ve won yourself a year and a day,” he told me. “But a lot can happen in a year and a day. Give me all the commands you want, but you’ll never

think of everything.”

Once, I was the one to throw him off balance, the one to ignite his anger and shred his self-control, but somehow the tables turned. Every day since, I’ve felt the slippage.

As I gaze at him now, stretched out on my bed, I feel more off balance than ever.

 

 

The Roach sweeps into the room as late-afternoon light streams from the hill above us. On his shoulder is the hob-faced owl, once a messenger for Dain, now a messenger for the Court of Shadows. It goes by Snapdragon, although I don’t know if that’s a code name.

“The Living Council wants to see you,” the Roach says. Snapdragon blinks sleepy black eyes at me.

I groan.

“In truth,” he says, nodding toward the bed, “they want to see him, but it’s you they can order around.”

I stand and stretch. Then, strapping on the sheath, I head into the parlor of my apartments so as not to wake Cardan. “How’s the Ghost?”

“Resting,” the Roach says. “Lot of rumors flying around about last night, even among the palace guard. Gossips begin to spin their webs.”

I head to my bath chamber to clean myself up. I gargle with salty water and scrub my face and armpits with a cloth slathered in lemony verbena soap. I brush out my tangles, too exhausted to manage anything more complicated than that. “I guess you checked the passageway by now,” I call out.

“I did,” the Roach says. “And I see why it wasn’t on any of our maps— there’s no connection to the other passageways at any point down the length of it. I’m not even sure it was built when they were.”

I consider the painting of the clock and the constellations. The stars prophesying an amorous lover.

“Who slept there before Cardan?” I ask.

The Roach shrugs. “Several Folk. No one of particular note. Guests of the crown.”

“Lovers,” I say, finally putting it together. “The High King’s lovers who weren’t consorts.”

“Huh.” The Roach indicates Cardan with the lift of his chin in the direction of my bedroom. “And that’s the place our High King chose to

sleep?” The Roach gives me a significant look, as though I am supposed to know the answer to this puzzle, when I didn’t realize it was a puzzle at all.

“I don’t know,” I say.

He shakes his head. “You best get to that Council meeting.”

I can’t say it’s not a relief to know that when Cardan wakes, I won’t be there.

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