Home > The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(14)

The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(14)
Author: Holly Black

“No geas can save you from the effects of our fruits and poisons. Think carefully. I could grant you the power to enrapture all who looked upon you instead. I could give you a spot right there.” He touches my forehead. “And anyone who saw it would be struck with love. I could give you a magical blade that cuts through starlight.”

“I don’t want to be controlled,” I say, my voice a whisper. I can’t believe I am saying this out loud, to him. I can’t believe I am doing this. “Magically, I mean. Give me that, and I will manage the rest.”

He nods once. “So you accept.”

It’s frightening to have a choice like this in front of me, a choice that changes all future choices.

I want power so badly. And this is an opportunity for it, a terrifying and slightly insulting opportunity. But also an intriguing one. Would I have made a good knight? I have no way of knowing.

Maybe I would have hated it. Maybe it would have meant standing around in armor and going on dull quests. Maybe it would have meant fighting people I liked.

I nod and hope I make a good spy.

Prince Dain rises and touches my shoulder. I feel the shock of the contact, like a spark of static. “Jude Duarte, daughter of clay, from this day forward no Faerie glamour will addle your mind. No enchantment will move your body against your will. None save for that of the maker of this geas.

“Now no one will be able to control you,” he says, and then pauses for a moment. “Except for me.”

I suck in a breath. Of course there’s a sting in the tail of this bargain. I cannot even be angry with him; I should have guessed.

And yet, it is still thrilling to have any protection at all. Prince Dain is only one faerie, and he has seen something in me, something Madoc wouldn’t see, something I have yearned to have acknowledged.

Right then and there, I go down on one knee on the ancient rug in Madoc’s study and swear myself into Prince Dain’s service.

All night, as I sit through dinner, I am conscious of the secret I hold. It makes me feel, for the first time, as though I have a power of my own, a power Madoc cannot take from me. Even thinking of it for too long—I am a spy! I am Prince Dain’s spy!—gives me a thrill.

We eat little birds stuffed with barley and wild ramps, their skins crackling with fat and honey. Oriana delicately picks hers apart. Oak chews on the skin. Madoc does not bother to separate off the flesh, eating bones and all. I poke at the stewed parsnips. Although Taryn is at the table, Vivi has not returned. I suspect that hunting with Rhyia was a ruse and that she has gone to the mortal world after a brief ride through the woods. I wonder if she ate her dinner with Heather’s family.

“You did well at the tournament,” Madoc says between bites.

I do not point out that he left the grounds. He couldn’t have been too impressed. I am not even sure how much he actually saw. “Does that mean you’ve changed your mind?”

Something in my voice makes him stop chewing and regard me with narrowed eyes. “About knighthood?” he asks. “No. Once there is a new High King in place, we will discuss your future.”

My mouth curves into a secretive smile. “As you wish.”

Down the table, Taryn watches Oriana and tries to copy her movements with the little bird. She does not look my way, even when she asks me to pass her a carafe of water.

She can’t keep me from following her to her room when we’re done, though.

“Look,” I say on the stairs. “I tried to do what you wanted, but I couldn’t, and I don’t want you to hate me for it. It’s my life.”

She turns around. “Your life to squander?”

“Yes,” I say as we come to the landing. I cannot tell her about Prince Dain, but even if I could, I am not sure it would help. I am not at all sure she’d approve of that, either. “Our lives are the only real thing we have, our only coin. We get to buy what we want with them.”

Taryn rolls her eyes. Her voice is acid. “Isn’t that pretty? Did you make it up yourself?”

“What is the matter with you?” I demand.

She shakes her head. “Nothing. Nothing. Maybe it would be better if I thought the way that you do. Never mind, Jude. You really were good out there.”

“Thanks,” I say, frowning in confusion. I wonder again over Cardan’s words about her, but I do not want to repeat them and make her feel bad. “So have you fallen in love yet?” I ask.

All my question gets me is a strange look. “I am staying home from the lecture tomorrow,” Taryn says. “I guess it is your life to squander, but I don’t have to watch.”

My feet feel like lead as I make my way to the palace, over ground strewn with windfall apples, their golden scent blowing in the air. I am wearing a long black dress with gold cuffs and a lacing of green braid, a comfortable favorite.

Afternoon birdsong trills above me, making me smile. I let myself have a brief fantasy of Prince Dain’s coronation, of me dancing with a grinning Locke while Cardan is dragged away and thrown in a dark oubliette.

A flash of white startles me from my thoughts. It’s a stag—a white stag, standing not ten feet from where I am. His antlers are threaded with a few thin cobwebs, and his coat is a white so bright that it seems silver in the afternoon light. We regard each other for a long moment, before he races off in the direction of the palace, taking my breath with him.

I decide to believe this is a good omen.

And, at least at first, it seems to be. Classes aren’t too bad. Noggle, our instructor, is a kind but odd old Fir Darrig from up north, with huge eyebrows, a long beard into which he occasionally shoves pens or scraps of paper, and a tendency to maunder on about meteor storms and their meanings. As afternoon turns to evening, he has us counting falling stars, which is a dull but relaxing task. I lie back on my blanket and stare up at the night sky.

The only downside is that it is hard for me to note down numbers in the dark. Usually, glowing orbs hang from the trees or large concentrations of fireflies light our lessons. I carry extra stubs of candles for when even that is too dim, since human eyesight isn’t nearly as keen as theirs, but I’m not allowed to light them when we study the stars. I try to write legibly and not get ink all over my fingers.

“Remember,” Noggle says, “unusual celestial events often presage important political changes, so with a new king on the horizon, it’s important for us to observe the signs carefully.”

Some giggling rises out of the darkness.

“Nicasia,” our instructor says. “Is there some difficulty?”

Her haughty voice is unrepentant. “None at all.”

“Now, what can you tell me about falling stars? What would be the meaning of a shower of them in the last hour of a night?”

“A dozen births,” Nicasia says, which is wrong enough to make me wince.

“Deaths,” I say under my breath.

Noggle hears me, unfortunately. “Very good, Jude. I am glad someone has been paying attention. Now, who would like to tell me when those deaths are most likely to occur?”

There is no point in my holding back, not when I made a declaration that I was going to shame Cardan with my greatness. I better start being great. “It depends on which of the constellations they passed through and in which direction the stars fell,” I say. Halfway through answering, I feel like my throat is going to close up. I am suddenly glad of the dark, so I don’t have to see Cardan’s expression. Or Nicasia’s.

“Excellent,” Noggle says. “Which is why our notes must be thorough. Continue!”

“This is dull,” I hear Valerian drawl. “Prophecy is for hags and small folk. We should be learning things of a more noble mien. If I am going to pass a night on my back, then I’d wish to be lessoned in love.”

Some of the others laugh.

“Very well,” said Noggle. “Tell me what event might portend success in love?”

“A girl taking off her dress,” he says to more laughter.

“Elga?” Noggle calls on a girl with silver hair and a laugh like shattering glass. “Can you answer for him? Perhaps he’s had such little success in love that he truly doesn’t know.”

She begins to stammer. I suspect she knows the answer but doesn’t want to court Valerian’s ire.

“Shall I ask Jude again?” Noggle asks tartly. “Or perhaps Cardan. Why don’t you tell us?”

“No,” he says.

“What was that?” Noggle asks.

When Cardan speaks, his voice rings with sinister authority. “It is as Valerian says. This lesson is boring. You will light the lamps and begin another, more worthy one.”

Noggle pauses for a long moment. “Yes, my prince,” he says finally, and all the globes around us flare to life. I blink several times as my eyes try to adjust. I wonder if Cardan has ever had to do anything he didn’t want to. I guess it is no surprise that he drowses during lectures. No surprise that he once, drunk as anything, rode a horse across the grass while we were having classes, trampling blankets and books and sending everyone scrambling to get out of his way. He can change our curriculum on a whim. How can anything matter to someone like that?

“Her eyesight is so poor,” Nicasia says, and I realize she’s standing over me. She has my notebook and waves it around so everyone can see my scrawls. “Poor, poor, Jude. It’s so hard to overcome so many disadvantages.”

There’s ink all over my fingers and on the golden cuffs of my dress.

Across the grove, Cardan is talking with Valerian. Only Locke is watching us, his expression troubled. Noggle is flipping through a stack of thick, dusty books, probably trying to come up with a lesson that Cardan will like.

“Sorry if you can’t read my handwriting,” I say, grabbing the notebook. The page tears, leaving most of my night’s work shredded. “But that’s not exactly my disadvantage.”

Nicasia slaps me in the face. I stumble, shocked, suddenly down on one knee, barely catching myself before I go sprawling. My cheek is hot, stinging. My head rings.

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