Principal The Wicked King (The Folk of Air Book #2)
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This book is even better than the previous, a twist in every sentence and betrayals around every corner
16 October 2020 (18:55)
I just downloaded this book and there are only 7 pages
18 November 2020 (18:49)
I just downloaded this book and there are only 7 pages
18 November 2020 (18:49)
This book is amazing
20 November 2020 (13:38)
@Solorespira try the pdf version
24 December 2020 (20:00)
I love these series sooo much I’m kinda sad that I finished the series because I got attached to it
26 January 2021 (09:00)
I've read the whole series before but then I was actually reading from a book. I loved this series WAY too much to leave it at that and I just HAD to re-read it. So sad I have to read online books because of the Pandemic.
13 February 2021 (02:55)
This book got me so good. The banter and sexual tension between Jude and Cardan had me on the edge of my seat, all googly-eyed like a schoolgirl with a crush. The political machinations, lying and backstabbing are all so damn thrilling. I saw literally nothing coming, though I don't know if that was the author's genius or just because I was too immersed in the story to play detective.
p.s. Cardan is evil and terrible and I am in love with him. I wish I was sorry.
p.s. Cardan is evil and terrible and I am in love with him. I wish I was sorry.
28 March 2021 (13:29)
Can't still believe that i got cured from Genital Herpes through herbal treatment from Dr clement who I met through the internet, I actually couldn't believe it at first because it sounded impossible to me knowing how far I have gone just to get rid of it. Dr clement send me his medicine which I took as instructed and here I am living a happy life once again, a big thanks to him I am sure there are many herbal doctors out there but Dr clement did it for me, contact him on dr instagram dr.clement He can still be able to cure any other illness help you with this herbals medicine: 1...ALS CURE DIABETES CURE EPILESY CURE HPV CURE LUPUS CURE HEPATITIS CURE CANCER CURE pregance, thank you Dr clement you are real greatful
08 May 2021 (21:55)
This is maybe the best book I ever read in my life.
01 July 2021 (23:24)
This is the Best book
01 August 2021 (19:12)
Can someone tell me if it's ok to not read the first one?
02 August 2021 (18:30)
You should read the first one !!
You should read the first one !!
07 August 2021 (07:27)
I LOVE this book. It's my favorite of the entire trilogy❤️
07 August 2021 (15:11)
i loved this book so much and the ebook version from this website is so good 5 stars for the book and the quality
30 August 2021 (17:05)
Pls I love this, that’s it. simply amazing
23 September 2021 (21:26)
I love love love love loveeeed this, rread it asap
03 November 2021 (06:59)
Copyright This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. Copyright © 2019 by Holly Black Illustrations by Kathleen Jennings Cover art copyright © 2019 by Sean Freeman. Cover design by Karina Granda. Cover copyright © 2019 by Hachette Book Group, Inc. Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact email@example.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights. Little, Brown and Company Hachette Book Group 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104 Visit us at LBYR.com First Edition: January 2019 Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The Little, Brown name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher. “Nymphidia” by Michael Drayton, first published in 1627 “The Fairies” by William Allingham, first published in 1850 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Black, Holly, author. | Jennings, Kathleen, illustrator. Title: The wicked king / Holly Black ; illustrations by Kathleen Jennings. First edition. | New York ; Boston : Little, Brown and Company, 2019. | Series: [The Folk of the Air ; 2] | Summary: As seneschal to High King Cardan, Jude must fight to keep control of the Faerie throne while her younger brother, Oak, enjoys the childhood she never knew. Identifiers: LCCN 2017056642| ISBN 9780316310352 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780316310338 (ebook) | ISBN 978031631; 0345 (library edition ebook) Subjects: | CYAC: Kings, queens, rulers, etc.—Fiction. | Power (Philosophy)—Fiction. | Courts and courtiers—Fiction. | Fairies—Fiction. | Sisters—Fiction. | Fantasy. Classification: LCC PZ7.B52878 Wic 2019 | DDC [Fic]—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017056642 ISBNs: 978-0-316-31035-2 (hardcover), 978-0-316-31033-8 (ebook), 978-0-316-45213-7 (int’l), 978-0-316-48713-9 (Barnes & Noble) E3-20181107-JV-NF-ORI Contents Cover Title Page Copyright Dedication Map Book One Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Book Two Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Epilogue Acknowledgments For Kelly Link, one of the merfolk Jude lifted the heavy practice sword, moving into the first stance—readiness. Get used to the weight, Madoc had told her. You must be strong enough to strike and strike and strike again without tiring. The first lesson is to make yourself that strong. It will hurt. Pain makes you strong. That was the first lesson he’d taught her after he’d cut down her parents with a sword not unlike the one she held now. Then she’d been seven, a baby. Now she was nine and lived in Faerieland, and everything was changed. She planted her feet in the grass. Wind ruffled her hair as she moved through the stances. One; the sword before her, canted to one side, protecting her body. Two; the pommel high, as though the blade were a horn coming from her head. Three: down to her hip, then in a deceptively casual droop in front of her. Then four: up again, to her shoulder. Each position could move easily into a strike or a defense. Fighting was chess, anticipating the move of one’s opponent and countering it before one got hit. But it was chess played with the whole body. Chess that left her bruised and tired and frustrated with the whole world and with herself, too. Or maybe it was more like riding a bike. When she’d been learning to do that, back in the real world, she’d fallen lots of times. Her knees had been scabby enough that Mom thought she might have scars. But Jude had taken off her training wheels herself and disdained riding carefully on the sidewalk, as Taryn did. Jude wanted to ride in the street, fast, like Vivi, and if she got gravel embedded into her skin for it, well, then she’d let Dad pick it out with tweezers at night. Sometimes Jude longed for her bike, but there were none in Faerie. Instead, she had giant toads and thin greenish ponies and wild-eyed horses slim as shadows. And she had weapons. And her parents’ murderer, now her foster father. The High King’s general, Madoc, who wanted to teach her how to ride too fast and how to fight to the death. No matter how hard she swung at him, it just made him laugh. He liked her anger. Fire, he called it. She liked it when she was angry, too. Angry was better than scared. Better than remembering she was a mortal among monsters. No one was offering her the option of training wheels anymore. On the other side of the field, Madoc was guiding Taryn through a series of stances. Taryn was learning the sword, too, although she had different problems than Jude. Her stances were more perfect, but she hated sparring. She paired the obvious defenses with the obvious attacks, so it was easy to lure her into a series of moves and then score a hit by breaking the pattern. Each time it happened, Taryn got mad, as though Jude were flubbing the steps of a dance rather than winning. “Come here,” Madoc called to Jude across the silvery expanse of grass. She walked to him, sword slung over her shoulders. The sun was just setting, but faeries are twilight creatures, and their day was not even half done. The sky was streaked with copper and gold. She inhaled a deep breath of pine needles. For a moment, she felt as though she were just a kid learning a new sport. “Come spar,” he said when Jude got closer. “Both of you girls against this old redcap.” Taryn leaned against her sword, the tip of it sinking into the ground. She wasn’t supposed to hold it that way—it wasn’t good for the blade—but Madoc didn’t reprimand her. “Power,” he said. “Power is the ability to get what you want. Power is the ability to be the one making the decisions. And how do we get power?” Jude stepped beside her twin. It was obvious that Madoc expected a response, but also that he expected the wrong one. “We learn how to fight well?” she said to say something. When Madoc smiled at her, she could see the points of his bottom cuspids, longer than the rest of his teeth. He tousled her hair, and she felt the sharp edges of his claw-like nails against her scalp, too light to hurt, but a reminder of what he was nonetheless. “We get power by taking it.” He pointed toward a low hill with a thorn tree growing on it. “Let’s make a game of the next lesson. That’s my hill. Go ahead and take it.” Taryn dutifully trooped toward it, Jude behind her. Madoc kept pace, his smile all teeth. “Now what?” Taryn asked, without any particular excitement. Madoc looked into the distance, as though he was contemplating and discarding various rules. “Now hold it against attack.” “Wait, what?” Jude asked. “From you?” “Is this a strategy game or a sparring practice?” Taryn asked, frowning. Madoc brought one finger under her chin, raising her head until she was looking into his golden cat eyes. “What is sparring but a game of strategy, played at speed?” he told her, with a great seriousness. “Talk with your sister. When the sun reaches the trunk of that tree, I will come for my hill. Knock me down but once and you both win.” Then he departed for a copse of trees some ways away. Taryn sat down on the grass. “I don’t want to do this,” she said. “It’s just a game,” Jude reminded her nervously. Taryn gave her a long look—the one that they gave each other when one of them was pretending things were normal. “Okay, so what do you think we should do?” Jude looked up into the branches of the thorn tree. “What if one of us threw rocks while the other did the sparring?” “Okay,” Taryn said, pushing herself up and beginning to gather stones into the folds of her skirts. “You don’t think he’ll get mad, do you?” Jude shook her head, but she understood Taryn’s question. What if he killed them by accident? You’ve got to choose which hill to die on, Mom used to tell Dad. It had been one of those weird sayings adults expected her to understand, even though they made no sense—like, “one in the hand is worth two in the bush” or “every stick has two ends” or the totally mysterious “a cat may look at a king.” Now, standing on an actual hill with a sword in her hand, she understood it a lot better. “Get into position,” Jude said, and Taryn wasted no time in climbing the thorn tree. Jude checked the sunmark, wondering what sort of tricks Madoc might use. The longer he waited, the darker it would get, and while he could see in the dark, Jude and Taryn could not. But, in the end, he didn’t use any tricks. He came out of the woods and in their direction, howling as though he were leading an army of a hundred. Jude’s knees went weak with terror. This is just a game, she reminded herself frantically. The closer he got, though, the less her body believed her. Every animal instinct strained to run. Their strategy seemed silly now in the face of his hugeness and their smallness, in the face of her fear. She thought of her mother bleeding on the ground, recalled the smell of her insides as they leaked out. The memory felt like thunder in her head. She was going to die. Run, her whole body urged. RUN! No, her mother had run. Jude planted her feet. She made herself move into the first position, even though her legs felt wobbly. He had the advantage, even coming up that hill, because he had momentum on his side. The stones raining down on him from Taryn barely checked his pace. Jude spun out of the way, not even bothering to try to block the first blow. Putting the tree between them, she dodged his second and third. When the fourth one came, it knocked her to the grass. She closed her eyes against the killing strike. “You can take a thing when no one’s looking. But defending it, even with all the advantage on your side, is no easy task,” Madoc told her with a laugh. She looked up to find him offering her a hand. “Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold on to.” Relief broke over her. It was just a game, after all. Just another lesson. “That wasn’t fair,” Taryn complained. Jude didn’t say anything. Nothing was fair in Faerie. She had learned to stop expecting it to be. Madoc hauled Jude to her feet and threw a heavy arm over her shoulders. He drew her and her twin in for an embrace. He smelled like smoke and dried blood, and Jude let herself sag against him. It was good to be hugged. Even by a monster. The new High King of Faerie lounges on his throne, his crown resting at an insouciant angle, his long villainously scarlet cloak pinned at his shoulders and sweeping the floor. An earring shines from the peak of one pointed ear. Heavy rings glitter along his knuckles. His most ostentatious decoration, however, is his soft, sullen mouth. It makes him look every bit the jerk that he is. I stand to one side of him, in the honored position of seneschal. I am supposed to be High King Cardan’s most trusted advisor, and so I play that part, rather than my real role—the hand behind the throne, with the power to compel him to obey should he try to cross me. Scanning the crowd, I look for a spy from the Court of Shadows. They intercepted a communication from the Tower of Forgetting, where Cardan’s brother is jailed, and are bringing it to me instead of to its intended recipient. And that’s only the latest crisis. It’s been five months since I forced Cardan onto the throne of Elfhame as my puppet king, five months since I betrayed my family, since my sister carried my little brother to the mortal realm and away from the crown that he might have worn, since I crossed swords with Madoc. Five months since I’ve slept for more than a few hours at a stretch. It seemed like a good trade—a very faerie trade, even: put someone who despised me on the throne so that Oak would be out of danger. It was thrilling to trick Cardan into promising to serve me for a year and a day, exhilarating when my plan came together. Then, a year and a day seemed like forever. But now I must figure out how to keep him in my power—and out of trouble—for longer than that. Long enough to give Oak a chance to have what I didn’t: a childhood. Now a year and a day seems like no time at all. And despite having put Cardan on the throne through my own machinations, despite scheming to keep him there, I cannot help being unnerved by how comfortable he looks. Faerie rulers are tied to the land. They are the lifeblood and the beating heart of their realm in some mystical way that I don’t fully understand. But surely Cardan isn’t that, not with his commitment to being a layabout who does none of the real work of governance. Mostly, his obligations appear to be allowing his ring-covered hands to be kissed and accepting the blandishments of the Folk. I’m sure he enjoys that part of it—the kisses, the bowing and scraping. He’s certainly enjoying the wine. He calls again and again for his cabochon-encrusted goblet to be refilled with a pale green liquor. The very smell of it makes my head spin. During a lull, he glances up at me, raising one black brow. “Enjoying yourself?” “Not as much as you are,” I tell him. No matter how much he disliked me when we were in school, that was a guttering candle to the steady flame of his hatred now. His mouth curls into a smile. His eyes shine with wicked intent. “Look at them all, your subjects. A shame not a one knows who their true ruler is.” My face heats a little at his words. His gift is to take a compliment and turn it into an insult, a jab that hurts more for the temptation to take it at face value. I spent so many revels avoiding notice. Now everyone sees me, bathed in candlelight, in one of the three nearly identical black doublets I wear each evening, my sword Nightfell at my hip. They twirl in their circle dances and play their songs, they drink their golden wine and compose their riddles and their curses while I look down on them from the royal dais. They are beautiful and terrible, and they might despise my mortality, might mock it, but I am up here and they are not. Of course, perhaps that isn’t so different from hiding. Perhaps it is just hiding in plain sight. But I cannot deny that the power I hold gives me a kick, a jolt of pleasure whenever I think on it. I just wish Cardan couldn’t tell. If I look carefully, I can spot my twin sister, Taryn, dancing with Locke, her betrothed. Locke, who I once thought might love me. Locke, whom I once thought I could love. It’s Taryn I miss, though. Nights like tonight, I imagine hopping down from the dais and going to her, trying to explain my choices. Her marriage is only three weeks away, and still we haven’t spoken. I keep telling myself I need her to come to me first. She played me for a fool with Locke. I still feel stupid when I look at them. If she won’t apologize, then at least she should be the one to pretend there’s nothing to apologize for. I might accept that, even. But I will not be the one to go to Taryn, to beg. My eyes follow her as she dances. I don’t bother to look for Madoc. His love is part of the price I paid for this position. A short, wizened faerie with a cloud of silver hair and a coat of scarlet kneels below the dais, waiting to be recognized. His cuffs are jeweled, and the moth pin that holds his cloak in place has wings that move on their own. Despite his posture of subservience, his gaze is greedy. Beside him stand two pale hill Folk with long limbs and hair that blows behind them, though there is no breeze. Drunk or sober, now that Cardan is the High King, he must listen to those subjects who would have him rule on a problem, no matter how small, or grant a boon. I cannot imagine why anyone would put their fate in his hands, but Faerie is full of caprice. Luckily, I’m there to whisper my counsel in his ear, as any seneschal might. The difference is that he must listen to me. And if he whispers back a few horrific insults, well, at least he’s forced to whisper. Of course, then the question becomes whether I deserve to have all this power. I won’t be horrible for the sake of my own amusement , I tell myself. That’s got to be worth something. “Ah,” Cardan says, leaning forward on the throne, causing his crown to tip lower on his brow. He takes a deep swallow of the wine and smiles down at the trio. “This must be a grave concern, to bring it before the High King.” “You may already have heard tales of me,” says the small faerie. “I made the crown that sits upon your head. I am called Grimsen the Smith, long in exile with the Alderking. His bones are now at rest, and there is a new Alderking in Fairfold, as there is a new High King here.” “Severin,” I say. The smith looks at me, obviously surprised that I have spoken. Then his gaze returns to the High King. “I beg you to allow me to return to the High Court.” Cardan blinks a few times, as though trying to focus on the petitioner in front of him. “So you were yourself exiled? Or you chose to leave?” I recall Cardan’s telling me a little about Severin, but he hadn’t mentioned Grimsen. I’ve heard of him, of course. He’s the blacksmith who made the Blood Crown for Mab and wove enchantments into it. It’s said he can make anything from metal, even living things—metal birds that fly, metal snakes that slither and strike. He made the twin swords, Heartseeker and Heartsworn, one that never misses and the other that can cut through anything. Unfortunately, he made them for the Alderking. “I was sworn to him, as his servant,” says Grimsen. “When he went into exile, I was forced to follow—and in so doing, fell into disfavor myself. Although I made only trinkets for him in Fairfold, I was still considered to be his creature by your father. “Now, with both of them dead, I crave permission to carve out a place for myself here at your Court. Punish me no further, and my loyalty to you will be as great as your wisdom.” I look at the little smith more closely, suddenly sure he’s playing with words. But to what end? The request seems genuine, and if Grimsen’s humility is not, well, his fame makes that no surprise. “Very well,” Cardan says, looking pleased to be asked for something easy to give. “Your exile is over. Give me your oath, and the High Court will welcome you.” Grimsen bows low, his expression theatrically troubled. “Noble king, you ask for the smallest and most reasonable thing from your servant, but I, who have suffered for such vows, am loath to make them again. Allow me this—grant that I may show you my loyalty in my deeds, rather than binding myself with my words.” I put my hand on Cardan’s arm, but he shrugs off my cautioning squeeze. I could say something, and he would be forced—by prior command—to at least not contradict me, but I don’t know what to say. Having the smith here, forging for Elfhame, is no small thing. It is worth, perhaps, the lack of an oath. And yet, something in Grimsen’s gaze looks a little too self-satisfied, a little too sure of himself. I suspect a trick. Cardan speaks before I can puzzle anything more out. “I accept your condition. Indeed, I will give you a boon. An old building with a forge sits on the edge of the palace grounds. You shall have it for your own and as much metal as you require. I look forward to seeing what you will make for us.” Grimsen bows low. “Your kindness shall not be forgotten.” I mislike this, but perhaps I’m being overcautious. Perhaps it’s only that I don’t like the smith himself. There’s little time to consider it before another petitioner steps forward. A hag—old and powerful enough that the air around her seems to crackle with the force of her magic. Her fingers are twiggy, her hair the color of smoke, and her nose like the blade of a scythe. Around her throat, she wears a necklace of rocks, each bead carved with whorls that seem to catch and puzzle the eye. When she moves, the heavy robes around her ripple, and I spy clawed feet, like those of a bird of prey. “Kingling,” the hag says. “Mother Marrow brings you gifts.” “Your fealty is all I require.” Cardan’s voice is light. “For now.” “Oh, I’m sworn to the crown, sure enough,” she says, reaching into one of her pockets and drawing out a cloth that looks blacker than the night sky, so black that it seems to drink the light around it. The fabric slithers over her hand. “But I have come all this way to present you with a rare prize.” The Folk do not like debt, which is why they will not repay a favor with mere thanks. Give them an oatcake, and they will fill one of the rooms of your house with grain, overpaying to push debt back onto you. And yet, tribute is given to High Kings all the time—gold, service, swords with names. But we don’t usually call those things gifts . Nor prizes . I do not know what to make of her little speech. Her voice is a purr. “My daughter and I wove this of spider silk and nightmares. A garment cut from it can turn a sharp blade, yet be as soft as a shadow against your skin.” Cardan frowns, but his gaze is drawn again and again to the marvelous cloth. “I admit I don’t think I’ve seen its equal.” “Then you accept what I would bestow upon you?” she asks, a sly gleam in her eye. “I am older than your father and your mother. Older than the stones of this palace. As old as the bones of the earth. Though you are the High King, Mother Marrow will have your word.” Cardan’s eyes narrow. She’s annoyed him, I can see that. There’s a trick here, and this time I know what it is. Before he can, I start speaking. “You said gifts , but you have only shown us your marvelous cloth. I am sure the crown would be pleased to have it, were it freely given.” Her gaze comes to rest on me, her eyes hard and cold as night itself. “And who are you to speak for the High King?” “I am his seneschal, Mother Marrow.” “And will you let this mortal girl answer for you?” she asks Cardan. He gives me a look of such condescension that it makes my cheeks heat. The look lingers. His mouth twists, curving. “I suppose I shall,” he says finally. “It amuses her to keep me out of trouble.” I bite my tongue as he turns a placid expression on Mother Marrow. “She’s clever enough,” the hag says, spitting out the words like a curse. “Very well, the cloth is yours, Your Majesty. I give it freely. I give you only that and nothing more.” Cardan leans forward as though they are sharing a jest. “Oh, tell me the rest. I like tricks and snares. Even ones I was nearly caught in.” Mother Marrow shifts from one clawed foot to the other, the first sign of nerves she’s displayed. Even for a hag with bones as old as she claimed, a High King’s wrath is dangerous. “Very well. An’ you had accepted all I would bestow upon you, you would have found yourself under a geas, allowing you to marry only a weaver of the cloth in my hands. Myself—or my daughter.” A cold shudder goes through me at the thought of what might have happened then. Could the High King of Faerie have been compelled into such a marriage? Surely there would have been a way around it. I thought of the last High King, who never wed. Marriage is unusual among the rulers of Faerie because once a ruler, one remains a ruler until death or abdication. Among commoners and the gentry, faerie marriages are arranged to be gotten out of—unlike the mortal “until death do us part,” they contain conditions like “until you shall both renounce each other” or “unless one strikes the other in anger” or the cleverly worded “for the duration of a life” without specifying whose. But a uniting of kings and/or queens can never be dissolved. Should Cardan marry, I wouldn’t just have to get him off the throne to get Oak on it. I’d have to remove his bride as well. Cardan’s eyebrows rise, but he has all the appearance of blissful unconcern. “My lady, you flatter me. I had no idea you were interested.” Her gaze is unflinching as she passes her gift to one of Cardan’s personal guard. “May you grow into the wisdom of your counselors.” “The fervent prayer of many,” he says. “Tell me. Has your daughter made the journey with you?” “She is here,” the hag says. A girl steps from the crowd to bow low before Cardan. She is young, with a mass of unbound hair. Like her mother, her limbs are oddly long and twig-like, but where her mother is unsettlingly bony, she has a kind of grace. Maybe it helps that her feet resemble human ones. Although, to be fair, they are turned backward. “I would make a poor husband,” Cardan says, turning his attention to the girl, who appears to shrink down into herself at the force of his regard. “But grant me a dance, and I will show you my other talents.” I give him a suspicious look. “Come,” Mother Marrow says to the girl, and grabs her, not particularly gently, by the arm, dragging her into the crowd. Then she looks back at Cardan. “We three will meet again.” “They’re all going to want to marry you, you know,” Locke drawls. I know his voice even before I look to find that he has taken the position that Mother Marrow vacated. He grins up at Cardan, looking delighted with himself and the world. “Better to take consorts,” Locke says. “Lots and lots of consorts.” “Spoken like a man about to enter wedlock,” Cardan reminds him. “Oh, leave off. Like Mother Marrow, I have brought you a gift.” Locke takes a step toward the dais. “One with fewer barbs.” He doesn’t look in my direction. It’s as though he doesn’t see me or that I am as uninteresting as a piece of furniture. I wish it didn’t bother me. I wish I didn’t remember standing at the very top of the highest tower on his estate, his body warm against mine. I wish he hadn’t used me to test my sister’s love for him. I wish she hadn’t let him. If wishes were horses , my mortal father used to say, beggars would ride . Another one of those phrases that makes no sense until it does. “Oh?” Cardan looks more puzzled than intrigued. “I wish to give you me —as your Master of Revels,” Locke announces. “Grant me the position, and I will make it my duty and pleasure to keep the High King of Elfhame from being bored.” There are so many jobs in a palace—servants and ministers, ambassadors and generals, advisors and tailors, jesters and makers of riddles, grooms for horses and keepers of spiders, and a dozen other positions I’ve forgotten. I didn’t even know there was a Master of Revels. For all I know, he invented the position. “I will serve up delights you’ve never imagined.” Locke’s smile is infectious. He will serve up trouble, that’s for sure. Trouble I have no time for. “Have a care,” I say, drawing Locke’s attention to me for the first time. “I am sure you would not wish to insult the High King’s imagination.” “Indeed, I’m sure not,” Cardan says in a way that’s difficult to interpret. Locke’s smile doesn’t waver. Instead, he hops onto the dais, causing the knights on either side to move immediately to stop him. Cardan waves them away. “If you make him Master of Revels—” I begin, quickly, desperately. “Are you commanding me?” Cardan interrupts, eyebrow arched. He knows I can’t say yes, not with the possibility of Locke’s overhearing. “Of course not,” I grind out. “Good,” Cardan says, turning his gaze from me. “I’m of a mind to grant your request, Locke. Things have been so very dull of late.” I see Locke’s smirk and bite the inside of my cheek to keep back the words of command. It would have been so satisfying to see his expression, to flaunt my power in front of him. Satisfying, but stupid. “Before, Grackles and Larks and Falcons vied for the heart of the Court,” Locke says, referring to the factions that preferred revelry, artistry, or war. Factions that fell in and out of favor with Eldred. “But now the Court’s heart is yours and yours alone. Let’s break it.” Cardan looks at Locke oddly, as though considering, seemingly for the first time, that being High King might be fun . As though he’s imagining what it would be like to rule without straining against my leash. Then, on the other side of the dais, I finally spot the Bomb, a spy in the Court of Shadows, her white hair a halo around her brown face. She signals to me. I don’t like Locke and Cardan together—don’t like their idea of entertainments—but I try to put that aside as I leave the dais and make my way to her. After all, there is no way to scheme against Locke when he is drawn to whatever amuses him most in the moment.… Halfway to where the Bomb’s standing, I hear Locke’s voice ring out over the crowd. “We will celebrate the Hunter’s Moon in the Milkwood, and there the High King will give you a debauch such that bards will sing of, this I promise you.” Dread coils in my belly. Locke is pulling a few pixies from the crowd up onto the dais, their iridescent wings shining in the candlelight. A girl laughs uproariously and reaches for Cardan’s goblet, drinking it to the dregs. I expect him to lash out, to humiliate her or shred her wings, but he only smiles and calls for more wine. Whatever Locke has in store, Cardan seems all too ready to play along. All Faerie coronations are followed by a month of revelry—feasting, boozing, riddling, dueling, and more. The Folk are expected to dance through the soles of their shoes from sundown to sunup. But five months after Cardan’s becoming High King, the great hall remains always full, the drinking horns overflowing with mead and clover wine. The revelry has barely slowed. It has been a long time since Elfhame had such a young High King, and a wild, reckless air infects the courtiers. The Hunter’s Moon is soon, sooner even than Taryn’s wedding. If Locke intends to stoke the flames of revelry higher and higher still, how long before that becomes a danger? With some difficulty, I turn my back on Cardan. After all, what would be the purpose in catching his eye? His hatred is such that he will do what he can, inside of my commands, to defy me. And he is very good at defiance. I would like to say that he always hated me, but for a brief, strange time it felt as though we understood each other, maybe even liked each other. Altogether an unlikely alliance, begun with my blade to his throat, it resulted in his trusting me enough to put himself in my power. A trust that I betrayed. Once, he tormented me because he was young and bored and angry and cruel. Now he has better reasons for the torments I am sure he dreams of inflicting on me once a year and a day is gone. It will be very hard to keep him always under my thumb. I reach the Bomb and she shoves a piece of paper into my hand. “Another note for Cardan from Balekin,” she says. “This one made it all the way to the palace before we intercepted it.” “Is it the same as the first two?” She nods. “Much like. Balekin tries to flatter our High King into coming to his prison cell. He wants to propose some kind of bargain.” “I’m sure he does,” I say, glad once again to have been brought into the Court of Shadows and to have them still watching my back. “What will you do?” she asks me. “I’ll go see Prince Balekin. If he wants to make the High King an offer, he’ll have to convince the High King’s seneschal first.” A corner of her mouth lifts. “I’ll come with you.” I glance back at the throne again, making a vague gesture. “No. Stay here. Try to keep Cardan from getting into trouble.” “He is trouble,” she reminds me, but doesn’t seem particularly worried by her own worrying pronouncement. As I head toward the passageways into the palace, I spot Madoc across the room, half in shadow, watching me with his cat eyes. He isn’t close enough to speak, but if he were, I have no doubt what he would say. Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold on to. Balekin is imprisoned in the Tower of Forgetting on the northernmost part of Insweal, Isle of Woe. Insweal is one of the three islands of Elfhame, connected to Insmire and Insmoor by large rocks and patches of land, populated with only a few fir trees, silvery stags, and the occasional treefolk. It’s possible to cross between Insmire and Insweal entirely on foot, if you don’t mind leaping stone to stone, walking through the Milkwood by yourself, and probably getting at least somewhat wet. I mind all those things and decide to ride. As the High King’s seneschal, I have the pick of his stables. Never much of a rider, I choose a horse that seems docile enough, her coat a soft black color, her mane in complicated and probably magical knots. I lead her out while a goblin groom brings me a bit and bridle. Then I swing onto her back and direct her toward the Tower of Forgetting. Waves crashing against the rocks beneath me. Salt spray misting the air. Insweal is a forbidding island, large stretches of its landscape bare of greenery, just black rocks and tide pools and a tower threaded through with cold iron. I tie the horse to one of the black metal rings driven into the stone wall of the tower. She whickers nervously, her tail tucked hard against her body. I touch her muzzle in what I hope is a reassuring way. “I won’t be long, and then we can get out of here,” I tell her, wishing I’d asked the groom for her name. I don’t feel so differently from the horse as I knock on the heavy wooden door. A large, hairy creature opens it. He’s wearing beautifully wrought plate armor, blond fur sticking out from any gaps. He’s obviously a soldier, which used to mean he would treat me well, for Madoc’s sake, but now might mean just the opposite. “I am Jude Duarte, seneschal to the High King,” I tell him. “Here on the crown’s business. Let me in.” He steps aside, pulling the door open, and I enter the dim antechamber of the Tower of Forgetting. My mortal eyes adjust slowly and poorly to the lack of light. I do not have the faerie ability to see in near darkness. At least three other guards are there, but I perceive them more as shapes than anything else. “You’re here to see Prince Balekin, one supposes,” comes a voice from the back. It is eerie not to be able to see the speaker clearly, but I pretend the discomfort away and nod. “Take me to him.” “Vulciber,” the voice says. “You take her.” The Tower of Forgetting is so named because it exists as a place to put Folk when a monarch wants them struck from the Court’s memory. Most criminals are punished with clever curses, quests, or some other form of capricious faerie judgment. To wind up here, one has to have really pissed off someone important. The guards are mostly soldiers for whom such a bleak and lonely location suits their temperament—or those whose commanders intend them to learn humility from the position. As I look over at the shadowy figures, it’s hard to guess which sort they are. Vulciber comes toward me, and I recognize the hairy soldier who opened the door. He looks to be at least part troll, heavy-browed and long-limbed. “Lead on,” I say. He gives me a hard look in return. I am not sure what he dislikes about me—my mortality, my position, my intruding on his evening. I don’t ask. I just follow him down stone stairs into the wet, mineral-scented darkness. The bloom of soil is heavy in the air, and there is a rotten, mushroomy odor I cannot place. I stop when the dark grows too deep and I fear I am going to stumble. “Light the lamps,” I say. Vulciber moves in close, his breath on my face, carrying with it the scent of wet leaves. “And if I will not?” A thin knife comes easily into my hand, slipping down out of a sleeve holster. I press the point against his side, just under the ribs. “Best you don’t find out.” “But you can’t see,” he insists, as though I have played some kind of dirty trick on him by not being as intimidated as he’d hoped. “Maybe I just prefer a little more light,” I say, trying to keep my voice even, though my heart is beating wildly, my palms starting to sweat. If we have to fight on the stairs, I better strike fast and true, because I’ll probably have only that one shot. Vulciber moves away from me and my knife. I hear his heavy footfalls on the steps and start counting in case I have to follow blind. But then a torch flares to life, emitting green fire. “Well?” he demands. “Are you coming?” The stairs pass several cells, some empty and some whose occupants sit far enough from the bars that the torchlight does not illuminate them. None do I recognize until the last. Prince Balekin’s black hair is held by a circlet, a reminder of his royalty. Despite being imprisoned, he barely looks discomfited. Three rugs cover the damp stone of the floor. He sits in a carved armchair, watching me with hooded, owl-bright eyes. A golden samovar rests on a small, elegant table. Balekin turns a handle, and steaming, fragrant tea spills into fragile porcelain. The scent of it makes me think of seaweed. But no matter how elegant he appears, he is still in the Tower of Forgetting, a few ruddy moths alighting on the wall above him. When he spilled the old High King’s blood, the droplets turned into moths, which fluttered through the air for a few stunning moments before seeming to die. I thought they were all gone, but it seems that a few follow him still, a reminder of his sins. “Our Lady Jude of the Court of Shadows,” he says, as though he believes that will charm me. “May I offer you a cup?” There is a movement in one of the other cells. I consider what his tea parties are like when I’m not around. I’m not pleased he’s aware of the Court of Shadows or my association with them, but I can’t be entirely surprised, either—Prince Dain, our spymaster and employer, was Balekin’s brother. And if Balekin knew about the Court of Shadows, he probably recognized one of them as they stole the Blood Crown and got it into my brother’s hands so he could place it on Cardan’s head. Balekin has good reason to not be entirely pleased to see me. “I must regretfully refuse tea,” I say. “I won’t be here long. You sent the High King some correspondence. Something about a deal? A bargain? I am here on his behalf to hear whatever it is you wish to say to him.” His smile seems to twist in on itself, to grow ugly. “You think me diminished,” Balekin says. “But I am still a prince of Faerie, even here. Vulciber, won’t you take my brother’s seneschal and give her a smack in her pretty, little face?” The strike comes openhanded, faster than I would have guessed, the sound of the slap shockingly loud as his palm connects with my skin. It leaves my cheek stinging and me furious. My knife is back in my right hand, its twin in my left. Vulciber wears an eager expression. My pride urges me to fight, but he’s bigger than me and in a space familiar to him. This would be no mere sparring contest. Still, the urge to best him, the urge to wipe the expression from his smug face, is overwhelming. Almost overwhelming. Pride is for knights, I remind myself, not for spies. “My pretty face,” I murmur to Balekin, putting away my knives slowly. I stretch my fingers to touch my cheek. Vulciber hit me hard enough for my own teeth to have cut the inside of my mouth. I spit blood onto the stone floor. “Such flattery. I cheated you out of a crown, so I guess I can allow for some hard feelings. Especially when they come with a compliment. Just don’t try me again.” Vulciber looks abruptly unsure of himself. Balekin takes a sip of his tea. “You speak very freely, mortal girl.” “And why shouldn’t I?” I say. “I speak with the High King’s voice. Do you think he’s interested in coming all the way down here, away from the palace and its pleasures, to treat with the elder brother at whose hands he suffered?” Prince Balekin leans forward in his chair. “I wonder what you think you mean.” “And I wonder what message you’d like me to give the High King.” Balekin regards me—no doubt one of my cheeks must be flushed. He takes another careful sip of tea. “I have heard that for mortals, the feeling of falling in love is very like the feeling of fear. Your heart beats fast. Your senses are heightened. You grow light-headed, maybe even dizzy.” He looks at me. “Is that right? It would explain much about your kind if it’s possible to mistake the two.” “I’ve never been in love,” I tell him, refusing to be rattled. “And of course, you can lie,” he says. “I can see why Cardan would find that helpful. Why Dain would have, too. It was clever of him to have brought you into his little gang of misfits. Clever to see that Madoc would spare you. Whatever else you could say about my brother, he was marvelously unsentimental. “For my part, I barely thought of you at all, and when I did, it was only to goad Cardan with your accomplishments. But you have what Cardan never did: ambition. Had I only seen that, I would have a crown now. But I think you’ve misjudged me, too.” “Oh?” I know I am not going to like this. “I won’t give you the message I meant for Cardan. It will come to him another way, and it will come to him soon.” “Then you waste both our time,” I say, annoyed. I have come all the way here, been hit, and frightened for nothing. “Ah, time,” he says. “You’re the only one short on that, mortal.” He nods at Vulciber. “You may escort her out.” “Let’s go,” the guard says, giving me a none-too-gentle shove toward the steps. As I ascend, I glance back at Balekin’s face, severe in the green torchlight. He resembles Cardan too much for my comfort. I am partway up when a long-fingered hand reaches out from between the bars and grips my ankle. Startled, I slip, scraping my palms and banging my knees as I go sprawling on the stairs. The old stab wound at the center of my left hand throbs suddenly. I barely catch myself before I tumble all the way down the steps. Beside me is the thin face of a faerie woman. Her tail curls around one of the bars. Short horns sweep back from her brow. “I knew your Eva,” she says to me, eyes glittering in the gloom. “I knew your mother. Knew so many of her little secrets.” I push myself to my feet and climb the steps as quickly as I can, my heart racing faster than when I thought I was going to have to fight Vulciber in the dark. My breath comes in short, rapid gasps that make my lungs hurt. At the top of the stairs, I pause to wipe my stinging palms against my doublet and try to get myself under control. “Ah,” I say to Vulciber when my breathing has calmed a little. “I nearly forgot. The High King gave me a scroll of commands. There are a few changes in how he wishes his brother to be treated. They’re outside in my saddlebags. If you could just follow me—” Vulciber looks a question at the guard who sent him to guide me to Balekin. “Go quickly,” the shadowy figure says. And so Vulciber accompanies me through the great door of the Tower of Forgetting. Illuminated by the moon, the black rocks shine with salt spray, a glittering coating, like that on sugared fruit. I try to focus on the guard and not the sound of my mother’s name, which I haven’t heard in so many years that, for a moment, I didn’t know why it was important to me. Eva. “That horse has only a bit and bridle,” Vulciber says, frowning at the black steed tied to the wall. “But you said—” I stab him in the arm with a little pin I kept hidden in the lining of my doublet. “I lied.” It takes some doing to haul him up and sling him over the back of the horse. She is trained with familiar military commands, including kneeling, which helps. I move as quickly as I can, for fear that one of the guards will come to check on us, but I am lucky. No one comes before we are up and moving. Another reason to ride to Insweal, rather than walk—you never know what you might be bringing back with you. You’re styling yourself as a spymaster,” the Roach says, looking over me and then my prisoner. “That ought to include being shrewd. Relying only on yourself is a good way to get got. Next time, take a member of the royal guard. Take one of us. Take a cloud of sprites or a drunken spriggan. Just take someone.” “Watching my back is the perfect opportunity to stick a knife in it,” I remind him. “Spoken like Madoc himself,” says the Roach with an irritated sniff of his long, twisted nose. He sits at the wooden table in the Court of Shadows, the lair of spies deep in the tunnels under the Palace of Elfhame. He is burning the tips of crossbow bolts in a flame, then liberally coating them with a sticky tar. “If you don’t trust us, just say so. We came to one arrangement, we can come to another.” “That’s not what I mean,” I say, putting my head down on my hands for a long moment. I do trust them. I wouldn’t have spoken so freely if I didn’t, but I am letting my irritation show. I am sitting across from the Roach, eating cheese and buttered bread with apples. It’s the first food I’ve had that day, and my belly is making hungry noises, another reminder of the way my body is unlike theirs. Faerie stomachs don’t gurgle. Perhaps hunger is why I am being snappish. My cheek is stinging, and though I turned the situation on its head, it was a nearer thing than I’d like to admit. Plus, I still don’t know what Balekin wanted to tell Cardan. The more exhausted I let myself get, the more I’ll slip up. Human bodies betray us. They get starved and sick and run down. I know it, and yet there is always so much more to do. Beside us, Vulciber sits, tied to a chair and blindfolded. “Do you want some cheese?” I ask him. The guard grunts noncommittally but pulls against his bindings at the attention. He’s been awake for several minutes and grown visibly more worried the longer we haven’t spoken to him. “What am I doing here?” he finally shouts, rocking his chair back and forth. “Let me go!” The chair goes over, slamming him against the ground, where he lies on his side. He begins to struggle against the ropes in earnest. The Roach shrugs, gets up, and pulls off Vulciber’s blindfold. “Greetings,” he says. On the other side of the room, the Bomb is cleaning beneath her fingernails with a long, half-moon knife. The Ghost is sitting in a corner so quietly that occasionally he seems not to be there at all. A few more of the new recruits look on, interested in the proceedings—a boy with sparrow wings, three spriggans, a sluagh girl. I am not used to an audience. Vulciber stares at the Roach, at his goblin-green skin and eyes that reflect orange, his long nose and the single tuft of hair on his head. He takes in the room. “The High King won’t allow this,” Vulciber says. I give him a sad smile. “The High King doesn’t know, and you’re unlikely to tell him once I cut out your tongue.” Watching his fear ripen fills me with an almost voluptuous satisfaction. I, who have had little power in my life, must be on guard against that feeling. Power goes to my head too quickly, like faerie wine. “Let me guess,” I say, turning backward in my chair to face him, calculated coolness in my gaze. “You thought you could strike me, and there would be no consequences.” He shrinks a bit at my words. “What do you want?” “Who says I want anything particular?” I counter. “Maybe just a little payback…” As if we rehearsed it, the Roach pulls out a particularly nasty blade from his belt and holds it over Vulciber. He grins down at the guard. The Bomb looks up from her nails, a small smile on her lips as she watches the Roach. “I guess the show is about to start.” Vulciber fights against his bonds, head lashing back and forth. I hear the wood of the chair crack, but he doesn’t get free. After several heavy breaths, he slumps. “Please,” he whispers. I touch my chin as though a thought has just occurred to me. “Or you could help us. Balekin wanted to make a bargain with Cardan. You could tell me about that.” “I know nothing of it,” he says desperately. “Too bad.” I shrug and pick up another piece of cheese, shoving it into my mouth. He takes a look at the Roach and the ugly knife. “But I know a secret. It’s worth more than my life, more than whatever Balekin wanted with Cardan. If I tell it, will you give me your oath that I will leave here tonight unharmed?” The Roach looks at me, and I shrug. “Well enough,” the Roach says. “If the secret is all you claim, and if you’ll swear never to reveal you had a visit to the Court of Shadows, then tell us and we’ll send you on your way.” “The Queen of the Undersea,” Vulciber says, eager to speak now. “Her people crawl up the rocks at night and whisper to Balekin. They slip into the Tower, although we don’t know how, and leave him shells and shark teeth. Messages are being exchanged, but we can’t decipher them. There are whispers Orlagh intends to break her treaty with the land and use the information Balekin is giving her to ruin Cardan.” Of all the threats to Cardan’s reign, the Undersea wasn’t one I was expecting. The Queen of the Undersea has a single daughter—Nicasia, fostered on land and one of Cardan’s awful friends. Like Locke, Nicasia and I have a history. Also like Locke, it isn’t a good one. But I thought that Cardan’s friendship with Nicasia meant Orlagh was happy he was on the throne. “Next time one of these exchanges happen,” I say, “come straight to me. And if you hear anything else you think I’d be interested in, you come and tell me that, too.” “That’s not what we agreed,” Vulciber protests. “True enough,” I tell him. “You’ve told us a tale, and it is a good one. We’ll let you go tonight. But I can reward you better than some murderous prince who does not and will never have the High King’s favor. There are better positions than guarding the Tower of Forgetting—yours for the taking. There’s gold. There’re all the rewards that Balekin can promise but is unlikely to deliver.” He gives me a strange look, probably trying to judge whether, given that he hit me and I poisoned him, it is still possible for us to be allies. “You can lie,” he says finally. “I’ll guarantee the rewards,” the Roach says. He reaches over and cuts Vulciber’s bindings with his scary knife. “Promise me a post other than in the Tower,” says Vulciber, rubbing his wrists and pushing himself to his feet, “and I shall obey you as though you were the High King himself.” The Bomb laughs at that, with a wink in my direction. They do not explicitly know that I have the power to command Cardan, but they know we have a bargain that involves my doing most of the work and the Court of Shadows acting directly for the crown and getting paid directly, too. I’m playing the High King in her little pageant, Cardan said once in my hearing. The Roach and the Bomb laughed; the Ghost didn’t. Once Vulciber exchanges promises with us, and the Roach leads him, blindfolded, into the passageways out of the Nest, the Ghost comes to sit beside me. “Come spar,” he says, taking a piece of apple off my plate. “Burn off some of that simmering rage.” I give a little laugh. “Don’t disparage. It’s not easy to keep the temperature so consistent,” I tell him. “Nor so high,” he returns, watching me carefully with hazel eyes. I know there’s human in his lineage—I can see it in the shape of his ears and his sandy hair, unusual in Faerie. But he hasn’t told me his story, and here, in this place of secrets, I feel uncomfortable asking. Although the Court of Shadows does not follow me, the four of us have made a vow together. We have promised to protect the person and office of the High King, to ensure the safety and prosperity of Elfhame for the hope of less bloodshed and more gold. So we’ve sworn. So they let me swear, even though my words don’t bind me the way theirs do, by magic. I am bound by honor and by their faith in my having some. “The king himself has had audience with the Roach thrice in this last fortnight. He’s learning to pick pockets. If you’re not careful, he’ll make a better slyfoot than you.” The Ghost has been added to the High King’s personal guard, which allows him to keep Cardan safe but also to know his habits. I sigh. It’s full dark, and I have much I ought to do before dawn. And yet it is hard to ignore this invitation, which pricks at my pride. Especially now, with the new spies overhearing my answer. We recruited more members, displaced after the royal murders. Every prince and princess employed a few, and now we employ them all. The spriggans are as cagey as cats but excellent at ferreting out scandal. The sparrow boy is as green as I once was. I would like the expanding Court of Shadows to believe I don’t back down from a challenge. “The real difficulty will come when someone tries to teach our king his way around a blade,” I say, thinking of Balekin’s frustrations on that front, of Cardan’s declaration that his one virtue was that he was no murderer. Not a virtue I share. “Oh?” says the Ghost. “Maybe you’ll have to teach it to him.” “Come,” I say, getting up. “Let’s see if I can teach you.” At that, the Ghost laughs outright. Madoc raised me to the sword, but until I joined the Court of Shadows, I knew only one way of fighting. The Ghost has studied longer and knows far more. I follow him into the Milkwood, where black-thorned bees hum in their hives high in the white-barked trees. The root men are asleep. The sea laps at the rocky edges of the isle. The world feels hushed as we face each other. As tired as I am, my muscles remember better than I do. I draw Nightfell. The Ghost comes at me fast, sword point diving toward my heart, and I knock it away, sweeping my blade down his side. “Not so out of practice as I feared,” he says as we trade blows, each of us testing the other. I do not tell him of the drills I do before the mirror, just as I do not tell him of all the other ways I attempt to correct my defects. As the High King’s seneschal and the de facto ruler, I have much to study. Military commitments, messages from vassals, demands from every corner of Elfhame written in as many languages. Only a few months ago, I was still attending lessons, still doing homework for scholars to correct. The idea that I can untangle everything seems as impossible as spinning straw into gold, but each night I stay awake until the sun is high in the sky, trying my hardest to do just that. That’s the problem with a puppet government: It’s not going to run itself. Adrenaline may turn out not to be a replacement for experience. Done with testing me on the basics, the Ghost begins the real fight. He dances over the grass lightly, so that there is barely a sound from his footfalls. He strikes and strikes again, posing a dizzying offensive. I parry desperately, my every thought given over to this, the fight. My worries fade into the background as my attention sharpens. Even my exhaustion blows off me like fluff from the back of a dandelion. It’s glorious. We trade blows, back and forth, advancing and retreating. “Do you miss the mortal world?” he asks. I am relieved to discover his breath isn’t coming entirely easily. “No,” I say. “I hardly knew it.” He attacks again, his sword a silvery fish darting through the sea of the night. Watch the blade, not the soldier, Madoc told me many times. Steel never deceives. Our weapons slam together again and again as we circle each other. “You must remember something.” I think of my mother’s name whispered through the bars in the Tower. He feigns to one side, and, distracted, I realize too late what he’s doing. The flat of his blade hits my shoulder. He could have cut open my skin if he hadn’t turned his blow at the last moment, and as it is, it’s going to bruise. “Nothing important,” I say, trying to ignore the pain. Two can play at the game of distraction. “Perhaps your memories are better than mine. What do you recall?” He shrugs. “Like you, I was born there.” He stabs, and I turn the blade. “But things were different a hundred years ago, I suppose.” I raise my eyebrows and parry another strike, dancing out of his range. “Were you a happy child?” “I was magic. How could I fail to be?” “Magic,” I say, and with a twist of my blade—a move of Madoc’s—I knock the sword out of the Ghost’s hand. He blinks at me. Hazel eyes. Crooked mouth opening in astonishment. “You…” “Got better?” I supply, pleased enough not to mind my aching shoulder. It feels like a win, but if we were really fighting, that shoulder wound would have probably made my final move impossible. Still, his surprise thrills me nearly as much as my victory. “It’s good Oak will grow up as we didn’t,” I say after a moment. “Away from the Court. Away from all this.” The last time I saw my little brother, he was sitting at the table in Vivi’s apartment, learning multiplication as though it were a riddle game. He was eating string cheese. He was laughing. “When the king returns,” the Ghost says, quoting from a ballad. “Rose petals will scatter across his path, and his footfalls will bring an end to wrath. But how will your Oak rule if he has as few memories of Faerie as we have of the mortal world?” The elation of the win ebbs. The Ghost gives me a small smile, as though to draw the sting of his words. I go to a nearby stream and plunge my hands in, glad of the cold water. I cup it to my lips and gulp gratefully, tasting pine needles and silt. I think of Oak, my little brother. An utterly normal faerie child, neither particularly called to cruelty nor free of it. Used to being coddled, used to being whisked away from distress by a fussing Oriana. Now growing used to sugary cereal and cartoons and a life without treachery. I consider the rush of pleasure that I felt at my temporary triumph over the Ghost, the thrill of being the power behind the throne, the worrying satisfaction I had at making Vulciber squirm. Is it better that Oak is without those impulses or impossible for him to ever rule unless he has them? And now that I have found in myself a taste for power, will I be loath to give it up? I wipe wet hands over my face, pushing back those thoughts. There is only now. There is only tomorrow and tonight and now and soon and never. We start back, walking together as the dawn turns the sky gold. In the distance I hear the bellow of a deer and what sounds like drums. Halfway there, the Ghost tips his head in a half bow. “You beat me tonight. I won’t let that happen again.” “If you say so,” I tell him with a grin. By the time I get back to the palace, the sun is up and I want nothing more than sleep. But when I make it to my apartments, I find someone standing in front of the door. My twin sister, Taryn. “You’ve got a bruise coming up on your cheek,” she says, the first words she’s spoken to me in five months. Taryn’s hair is dressed with a halo of laurel, and her gown is a soft brown, woven through with green and gold. She has dressed to accentuate the curves of her hips and chest, both unusual in Faerie, where bodies are thin to the point of attenuation. The clothes suit her, and there is something new in the set of her shoulders that suits her as well. She is a mirror, reflecting someone I could have been but am not. “It’s late,” I say clumsily, unlocking the door to my rooms. “I didn’t expect anyone to be up.” It’s well past dawn by now. The whole palace is quiet and likely to stay so until the afternoon, when pages race through the halls and cooks light fires. Courtiers will rise from their beds much later, at full dark. For all my wanting to see her, now that she is in front of me, I am unnerved. She must want something to have put in all this effort all of a sudden. “I’ve come twice before,” she says, following me inside. “You weren’t here. This time I decided to wait, even if I waited all day.” I light the lamps; though it is bright outside, I am too deep in the palace to have windows in my rooms. “You look well.” She waves off my stiff politeness. “Are we going to fight forever? I want you to wear a flower crown and dance at my wedding. Vivienne is coming from the mortal world. She’s bringing Oak. Madoc promises he won’t argue with you. Please say you’ll come.” Vivi is bringing Oak? I groan internally and wonder if there’s a chance of talking her out of it. Maybe it’s because she’s my elder sister, but sometimes it’s hard for her to take me particularly seriously. I sink down on the couch, and Taryn does the same. I consider again the puzzle of her being here. Of whether I should demand an apology or if I should let her skip past all that, the way she clearly wants. “Okay,” I tell her, giving in. I’ve missed her too much to risk losing her again. For the sake of us being sisters, I will try to forget what it felt like to kiss Locke. For my own sake, I will try to forget that she knew about the games he was playing with me during their courtship. I will dance at her wedding, though I am afraid it will feel like dancing on knives. She reaches into the bag by her feet and pulls out my stuffed cat and snake. “Here,” she says. “I didn’t think you meant to leave them behind.” They’re relics of our old mortal life, talismans. I take them and press them to my chest, as I might a pillow. Right now, they feel like reminders of all my vulnerabilities. They make me feel like a child, playing a grown-up game. I hate her a little for bringing them. They’re a reminder of our shared past—a deliberate reminder, as though she couldn’t trust me to remember on my own. They make me feel all my exposed nerves when I am trying so hard not to feel anything. When I don’t speak for a long moment, she goes on. “Madoc misses you, too. You were always his favorite.” I snort. “Vivi is his heir. His firstborn. The one he came to the mortal world to find. She’s his favorite. Then there’s you—who lives at home and didn’t betray him.” “I’m not saying you’re still his favorite,” Taryn says with a laugh. “Although he was a little proud of you when you outmaneuvered him to get Cardan onto the throne. Even if it was stupid. I thought you hated Cardan. I thought we both hated him.” “I did,” I say, nonsensically. “I do.” She gives me a strange look. “I thought you wanted to punish Cardan for everything he’s done.” I think of his horror at his own desire when I brought my mouth to his, the dagger in my hand, edge against his skin. The toe-curling, corrosive pleasure of that kiss. It felt as though I was punishing him—punishing him and myself at the same time. I hated him so much. Taryn is dredging up every feeling I want to ignore, everything I want to pretend away. “We made an agreement,” I tell her, which is close to the truth. “Cardan lets me be his advisor. I have a position and power, and Oak is out of danger.” I want to tell her the rest, but I don’t dare. She might tell Madoc, might even tell Locke. I cannot share my secrets with her, even to brag. And I admit that I desperately want to brag. “And in return, you gave him the crown of Faerie.…” Taryn is looking at me as though struck by my presumption. After all, who was I, a mortal girl, to decide who should sit on the throne of Elfhame? We get power by taking it. Little does she know how much more presumptuous I have been. I stole the crown of Faerie, I want to tell her. The High King, Cardan, our old enemy, is mine to command. But of course I cannot say those words. Sometimes it seems dangerous even to think them. “Something like that,” I say instead. “It must be a demanding job, being his advisor.” She looks around the room, forcing me to see it as she does. I have taken over these chambers, but I have no servants save for the palace staff, whom I seldom allow inside. Cups of tea rest on bookshelves, saucers lie on the floor along with dirty plates of fruit rinds and bread crusts. Clothes are scattered where I drop them after tugging them off. Books and papers rest on every surface. “You’re unwinding yourself like a spool. What happens when there’s no more thread?” “Then I spin more,” I say, carrying the metaphor. “Let me help you,” she says, brightening. My brows rise. “You want to make thread?” She rolls her eyes at me. “Oh, come on. I can do things you don’t have time for. I see you in Court. You have perhaps two good jackets. I could bring some of your old gowns and jewels over—Madoc wouldn’t notice, and even if he did, he wouldn’t mind.” Faerie runs on debt, on promises and obligations. Having grown up here, I understand what she’s offering—a gift, a boon, instead of an apology. “I have three jackets,” I say. She raises both brows. “Well, then I guess you’re all set.” I can’t help wondering at her coming now, just after Locke has been made Master of Revels. And with her still in Madoc’s house, I wonder where her political loyalties lie. I am ashamed of those thoughts. I don’t want to think of her the way I have to think about everyone else. She is my twin, and I missed her, and I hoped she would come, and now she has. “Okay,” I say. “If you want to, bringing over my old stuff would be great.” “Good!” Taryn stands. “And you ought to acknowledge what an enormous act of forbearance it was for me not to ask where you came from tonight or how you got hurt.” At that, my smile is instant and real. She reaches out a finger to pet the plush body of my stuffed snake. “I love you, you know. Just like Mr. Hiss. And neither of us wants to be left behind.” “Good night,” I tell her, and when she kisses my bruised cheek, I hug her to me, brief and fierce. Once she’s gone, I take my stuffed animals and seat them next to me on the rug. Once, they were a reminder that there was a time before Faerieland, when things were normal. Once, they were a comfort to me. I take a long last look, and then, one by one, I feed them to the fire. I’m no longer a child, and I don’t need comfort. Once that is done, I line up little shimmering glass vials in front of me. Mithridatism, it is called, the process by which one takes a little bit of poison to inoculate oneself against a full dose of it. I started a year ago, another way for me to correct for my defects. There are still side effects. My eyes shine too brightly. The half moons of my fingernails are bluish, as though my blood doesn’t get quite enough oxygen. My sleep is strange, full of too-vivid dreams. A drop of the bloodred liquid of the blusher mushroom, which causes potentially lethal paralysis. A petal of deathsweet, which can cause a sleep that lasts a hundred years. A sliver of wraithberry, which makes the blood race and induces a kind of wildness before stopping the heart. And a seed of everapple—faerie fruit—which muddies the minds of mortals. I feel dizzy and a little sick when the poison hits my blood, but I would be sicker still if I skipped a dose. My body has acclimated, and now it craves what it should revile. An apt metaphor for other things. I crawl to the couch and lie there. As I do, Balekin’s words wash over me: I have heard that for mortals the feeling of falling in love is very like the feeling of fear. Your heart beats fast. Your senses are heightened. You grow light-headed, maybe even dizzy. Is that right? I am not sure I sleep, but I do dream. 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 Majesty.” 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 it.” 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 you. Maybe 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. 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. The Living Council was assembled during Eldred’s time, ostensibly to help the High King make decisions, and they have calcified into a group difficult to oppose. It’s not so much that the ministers have raw individual power—although many are themselves formidable—but as a collective, it has the authority to make many smaller decisions regarding the running of the kingdom. The kind of small decisions that, taken together, could put even a king in a bind. After the disrupted coronation and the murder of the royal family, after the irregularity with the crown, the Council is skeptical of Cardan’s youth and confused by my rise to power. Snapdragon leads me to the meeting, beneath a braided dome of willow trees at a table of fossilized wood. The ministers watch me walk across the grass, and I look at them in turn—the Unseelie Minister, a troll with a thick head of shaggy hair with pieces of metal braided into it; the Seelie Minister, a green woman who looks like a mantis; the Grand General, Madoc; the Royal Astrologer, a very tall, dark-skinned man with a sculpted beard and celestial ornaments in the long fall of his navy blue hair; the Minister of Keys, a wizened old hob with ram’s horns and goat eyes; and the Grand Fool, who wears pale lavender roses on his head to match his purple motley. All along the table are carafes of water and wine, dishes of dried fruit. I lean over to one of the servants and send them for a pot of the strongest tea they can find. I will need it. Randalin, the Minister of Keys, sits in the High King’s chair, the wooden back of the throne-like seat is burned with the royal crest. I note the move—and the assumptions inherent in it. In the five months since assuming the mantle of High King, Cardan has not come to the Council. Only one chair is empty—between Madoc and Fala, the Grand Fool. I remain standing. “Jude Duarte,” says Randalin, fixing me with his goat eyes, “Where is the High King?” Standing in front of them is always intimidating, and Madoc’s presence makes it worse. He makes me feel like a child, overeager to say or do something clever. A part of me wants nothing more than to prove I am more than what they suppose me to be—the weak and silly appointee of a weak and silly king. To prove that there is another reason for Cardan to have chosen a mortal seneschal than because I can lie for him. “I am here in his place,” I say. “To speak in his stead.” Randalin’s gaze is withering. “There is a rumor that he shot one of his paramours last night. Is it true?” A servant sets the asked-for pot of tea at my elbow, and I am grateful both for the fortification and for an excuse not to immediately answer. “Today courtiers told me that girl wore an anklet of swinging rubies sent to her as an apology, but that she could not stand on her own,” says Nihuar, the Seelie representative. She purses her small green lips. “I find everything about that to be in poor taste.” Fala the Fool laughs, clearly finding it to his taste. “Rubies for the spilling of her ruby-red blood.” That couldn’t be true. Cardan would have had to arrange it in the time it took me to get from my rooms to the Council. But that doesn’t mean someone else didn’t arrange it on his behalf. Everyone is eager to help a king. “You’d prefer he’d killed her outright?” I say. My skills in diplomacy are nowhere near as honed as my skills in aggravation. Besides, I’m tired. “I wouldn’t mind,” says the Unseelie representative, Mikkel, with a chuckle. “Our new High King seems Unseelie through and through, and he will favor us, I think. We could give him a debauch better than the one his Master of Revels brags over, now that we know what he likes.” “There are other stories,” continues Randalin. “That one of the guard shot High King Cardan to save that courtier’s life. That she is bearing the royal heir. You must tell the High King that his Council stands ready to advise him so that his rule is not plagued by such tales.” “I’ll be sure to do so,” I say. The Royal Astrologer, Baphen, gives me a searching look, as though reading correctly my intention not to talk to Cardan about any of this. “The High King is tied to the land and to his subjects. A king is a living symbol, a beating heart, a star upon which Elfhame’s future is written.” He speaks quietly, and yet somehow his voice carries. “Surely you have noticed that since his reign began, the isles are different. Storms come in faster. Colors are a bit more vivid, smells are sharper. “Things have been seen in the forests,” he goes on. “Ancient things, long thought gone from the world, come to peer at him. “When he becomes drunk, his subjects become tipsy without knowing why. When his blood falls, things grow. Why, High Queen Mab called Insmire, Insmoor, and Insweal from the sea. All the isles of Elfhame, formed in a single hour.” My heart speeds faster the longer that Baphen talks. My lungs feel as though they cannot get enough air. Because none of this can be describing Cardan. He cannot be connected to the land so profoundly, cannot be able to do all that and yet be under my control. I think of the blood on his coverlet—and beside it, the scattered white flowers. When his blood falls, things grow. “And so you see,” says Randalin, unaware that I am freaking out, “the High King’s every decision changes Elfhame and influences its inhabitants. During Eldred’s reign, when children were born, they were perforce brought before him to pledge themselves to the kingdom. But in the low Courts, some heirs were fostered in the mortal world, growing up outside of Eldred’s reach. Those changeling children returned to rule without making vows to the Blood Crown. At least one Court has made such a changeling its queen. And who knows how many wild Folk managed to avoid making vows.” “We need to watch the Queen of the Undersea, too,” I say. “She’s got a plan and is going to move against us.” “What’s this?” Madoc says, interested in the conversation for the first time. “Impossible,” says Randalin. “How would you have heard such a thing?” “Balekin has been meeting with her representatives,” I say. Randalin snorts. “And I suppose you have that from the prince’s own lips?” If I bit my tongue any harder, I’d bite clean through it. “I have it from more than one source. If their alliance was with Eldred, then it’s over.” “The sea Folk have cold hearts,” Mikkel says, which sounds at first as though he’s agreeing with me, but the approving tone of his voice undermines it. “Why doesn’t Baphen consult his star charts?” Randalin says placatingly. “If he finds a threat prophesied there, we shall discuss further.” “I am telling you—” I insist, frustrated. That is the moment that Fala jumps up on the table and begins to dance—interpretively, I think. Madoc grunts out a laugh. A bird alights on Nihuar’s shoulder, and