Home > The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(13)

The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(13)
Author: Holly Black

Cardan, here? My heartbeat speeds. I can’t think. “Where?”

Gnarbone looks surprised by my reaction. “In Madoc’s study. I was just bringing him this—”

I grab the tray out of his hands and head down the stairs, intent on getting rid of Cardan as quickly as I can, any way that I can. The last thing I need is for Madoc to overhear my being disrespectful and decide I’ll never belong at the Court. He is a servant of the Greenbriar line, sworn as surely as anyone. He would not like my being at odds with even the least of the princes.

I fly down the stairs and kick open the door to Madoc’s study. The knob crashes into a bookshelf as I stride into the room, plunking down the tray with enough force to make the cups dance.

Prince Dain has several books lying open on the library table in front of him. Golden curls fall over his eyes, and the collar of his pale blue doublet is open, showing a heavy silver torque at his throat. I halt, aware of the colossal mistake I have made.

He raises both eyebrows. “Jude. I didn’t expect you to be in such a rush.”

I sink into a low bow and hope he will think me only clumsy. Fear gnaws at me, sharp and sudden. Could Cardan have sent him? Is he here to punish me for my insolence? I can think of no other reason that honored and honorable Prince Dain, soon to be the ruler of Faerie, would ask for me.

“Uh,” I say, panic tripping my tongue. With relief, I remember the tray and indicate the decanter. “Here. This is for you, my lord.”

He picks up an acorn and pours a little of the thick black liquid into the cup. “Will you drink with me?”

I shake my head, feeling completely out of my depth. “It will go straight to my head.”

That makes him laugh. “Well then, keep me company a time.”

“Of course.” That, I cannot possibly refuse. Alighting on an arm of one of the green leather chairs, I feel my heart thud dully. “May I get you anything else?” I ask, not sure how to proceed.

He lifts his acorn cup, as if in salute. “I have refreshment enough. What I require is conversation. Perhaps you can tell me what made you storm in here. Who did you think I was?”

“No one,” I say quickly. My thumb rubs over my ring finger, over the smooth skin of the missing tip.

He sits up straighter, as though I am suddenly much more interesting. “I thought maybe one of my brothers was bothering you.”

I shake my head. “Nothing like that.”

“It’s shocking,” he says, as though he’s giving me some great compliment. “I know humans can lie, but to watch you do it is incredible. Do it again.”

I feel my face heat. “I wasn’t… I…”

“Do it again,” he repeats gently. “Don’t be afraid.”

Only a fool wouldn’t be, despite his words. Prince Dain came here when Madoc was not at home. He asked for me specifically. He implied he knew about Cardan—perhaps he glimpsed us after the mock war, Cardan jerking my head by my braid. But what does Dain want?

I am breathing too shallowly, too fast.

Dain, about to be crowned the High King, has the power to grant me a place in the Court, the power to gainsay Madoc and make me a knight. If only I could impress him, he could give me everything I want. Everything I thought I lost my shot at.

I draw myself up and look into the silvered gray of his eyes. “My name is Jude Duarte. I was born on November thirteenth, 2001. My favorite color is green. I like fog and sad ballads and chocolate-covered raisins. I can’t swim. Now tell me, which part was the lie? Did I lie at all? Because what’s so great about lying is the not knowing.”

I realize abruptly that he might not take any vow particularly seriously from me after that little performance. He looks pleased, though, smiling at me as if he’d found a rough ruby lying in the dirt. “Now,” he says, “tell me how your father uses that little talent of yours.”

I blink, confused.

“Really? He doesn’t. What a shame.” The prince tilts his head to study me. “Tell me what you dream of, Jude Duarte, if that’s your true name. Tell me what you want.”

My heart hammers in my chest, and I feel a little light-headed, a little dizzy. Surely it can’t be this easy. Prince Dain, soon to be the High King of all Faerie, asking me what I want. I barely dare answer, and yet I must.

“I—I want to be your knight,” I stammer.

His eyebrows go up. “Unexpected,” he says. “And pleasing. What else?”

“I don’t understand.” I twist my hands together so he can’t see how they are shaking.

“Desire is an odd thing. As soon as it’s sated, it transmutes. If we receive golden thread, we desire the golden needle. And so, Jude Duarte, I am asking you what you would want next if I made you part of my company.”

“To serve you,” I say, still confused. “To pledge my sword to the crown.”

He waves off my answer. “No, tell me what you want. Ask me for something. Something you’ve never asked from anyone.”

Make me no longer mortal, I think, and then am horrified at myself. I don’t want to want that, especially because there is no way to get it. I will never be one of the Folk.

I take a deep breath. If I could ask him for any boon, what would it be? I understand the danger, of course. Once I tell him, he is going to try to strike a bargain, and faerie bargains seldom favor the mortal. But the potential for power dangles before me.

My thoughts go to the necklace at my throat, the sting of my own palm against my cheek, the sound of Oak’s laughter.

I think of Cardan: See what we can do with a few words? We can enchant you to run around on all fours, barking like a dog. We can curse you to wither away for want of a song you’ll never hear again or a kind word from my lips.

“To resist enchantment,” I say, trying to will myself to stillness. Trying not to fidget. I want to seem like a serious person who makes serious bargains.

He regards me steadily. “You already have True Sight, given to you as a child. Surely you understand our ways. You know the charms. Salt our food and you destroy any ensorcellment on it. Turn your stockings inside out and you will never find yourself led astray. Keep your pockets full of dried rowan berries and your mind won’t be influenced.”

The last few days have shown me how woefully inadequate those protections are. “What happens when they turn out my pockets? What happens when they rip my stockings? What happens when they scatter my salt in the dirt?”

He regards me thoughtfully. “Come closer, child,” he says.

I hesitate. From all I have observed of Prince Dain, he has always seemed like a creature of honor. But what I have observed is painfully little.

“Come now, if you are going to serve me, you must trust me.” He is leaning forward in the chair. I notice the small horns just above his brow, parting his hair on either side of his regal face. I notice the strength in his arms and the signet ring gleaming on one long-fingered hand, carved with the symbol of the Greenbriar line.

I slide from the chair arm and walk over to where he sits. I force myself to speak. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.”

He touches a bruise on my cheek, one I hadn’t realized was there. I flinch, but I don’t move away from him. “Cardan is a spoiled child. It is well-known in the Court that he squanders his lineage on drink and petty squabbles. No, don’t bother to object.”

I don’t. I wonder how it was that Gnarbone came to tell me only that a prince was waiting for me downstairs, but not which prince. I wonder if Dain told him to give me that specific message. A well-seasoned strategist waits for the right opportunity.

“Although we are brothers, we are very different from each other. I will never be cruel to you for the sake of delighting in it. If you swear yourself into my service, you will find yourself rewarded. But what I want you for is not knighthood.”

My heart sinks. It was too much to believe that a prince of Faerie had dropped by to make all my dreams come true, but it was nice while it lasted. “Then what do you want?”

“Nothing you haven’t already offered. You wanted to give me your oath and your sword. I accept. I need someone who can lie, someone with ambition. Spy for me. Join my Court of Shadows. I can make you powerful beyond what you might ever hope. It’s not easy for humans to be here with us. But I could make it easier for you.”

I allow myself to sink into a chair. It feels a little bit like expecting a proposal of marriage, only to get offered the role of mistress.

A spy. A sneak. A liar and a thief. Of course that’s what he thinks of me, of mortals. Of course that’s what he thinks I am good for.

I consider the spies I have seen, like the parsnip-nosed and hunched figure Madoc consults with sometimes, or a shadowy, gray-shrouded figure whose face I’ve never managed to spot. All the royals probably have them, but doubtless part of their skill is in how well hidden they are.

And I would be well hidden, indeed, hidden in plain sight.

“It is perhaps not the future you imagined for yourself,” Prince Dain says. “No shining armor or riding into battle, but I promise you that once I am the High King, if you serve well, you will be able to do as you like, for who can gainsay the High King? And I will put a geas on you, a geas of protection from enchantment.”

I go very still. Usually given to mortals in exchange for their service, geases grant power, with a kick-in-the-teeth exception that comes upon you when you least expect it. Like, you’re invulnerable, except to an arrow made of the heartwood of a hawthorn tree, which just so happens to be the exact kind of arrow that your worst enemy favors. Or you’ll win every battle you’re in, but you’re not allowed to refuse invitations to dinner, so if someone invites you to dinner right before a battle, you’re not going to be able to show up for that fight. Basically, like everything about Faerie, geases are awesome, and also they suck. Yet, it seems like that’s what I am being offered.

“A geas,” I echo.

His smile widens, and after a moment, I know why. I haven’t said no. Which means I am thinking of saying yes.

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