Home > The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(15)

The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(15)
Author: Holly Black

“You can’t do that,” I say to her nonsensically.

I thought I understood how this game worked. I thought wrong.

“I may do whatever I wish,” she informs me, still haughty.

Our classmates stare. Elga has one delicate hand over her mouth. Cardan looks over, and I can tell from his expression that she has failed to please him. Embarrassment starts to creep over Nicasia’s face.

For as long as I have been among them, there were lines they didn’t cross. When they shoved us into the river, no one witnessed it. For better or worse, I am part of the general’s household and under Madoc’s protection. Cardan might dare to cross him, but I thought the others would at least strike in secret.

I seem to have angered Nicasia past caring about any of that.

I brush myself off. “Are you calling me out? Because then it’s my right to choose the time and the weapon.” How I would love to knock her down.

She realizes that my question actually demands a response. I might be lower than the ground, but that doesn’t absolve her from obligations to her own honor.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Cardan coming toward us. Jittery anticipation commingles with dread. On my other side, Valerian bumps my shoulder. I take a step away from him, but not fast enough to avoid being assailed with the smell of overripe fruit.

Above us, in the black dome of night, seven stars fall, streaking gloriously across the sky before guttering out. I look up automatically, too late to have seen their precise path.

“Did anyone note that down?” Noggle begins shouting, fumbling in his beard for a pen. “This is the celestial event we’ve been waiting for! Someone must have seen the exact origin point. Quickly! Set down everything you can remember.”

Just then, as I am looking at the stars, Valerian shoves something soft against my mouth. An apple, sweet and rotten at the same time, honeyed juice running over my tongue, tasting of sunlight and pure heady, stupid joy. Faerie fruit, which muddles the mind, which makes humans crave it enough to starve themselves for another taste, which makes us pliant and suggestible and ridiculous.

Dain’s geas protected me from enchantment, from anyone’s control, but faerie fruit puts you out of even your own control.

Oh no. Oh no no no no no.

I spit it out. The apple rolls in the dirt, but I can already feel it working on me.

Salt, I think, fumbling for my basket. Salt is what I need. Salt is the antidote. It will clear the fog in my head.

Nicasia sees what I am going for and snatches up my basket, dancing out of the way, while Valerian pushes me to the ground. I try to crawl away from him, but he pins me, shoving the filthy apple back into my face.

“Let me sweeten that sour tongue of yours,” he says, pressing it down. Pulp is in my mouth and up my nose.

I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

My eyes are open, staring up at Valerian’s face. I’m choking. He’s watching me with an expression of mild curiosity, as though he’s looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Darkness is creeping in at the edges of my vision. I am choking to death.

The worst part is the joy blooming inside me from the fruit, blotting out the terror. Everything is beautiful. My vision is swimming. I reach up to claw at Valerian’s face, but I am too dizzy to reach him. A moment later, it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to hurt him, not when I am so happy.

“Do something!” someone says, but in my delirium, I can’t tell who is speaking.

Abruptly, Valerian is kicked off me. I roll onto my side, coughing. Cardan is looming there. Tears and snot are running down my face, but all I can do is lie in the dirt and spit out pieces of sweet, fleshy pulp. I have no idea why I am crying.

“Enough,” Cardan says. He has an odd, wild expression on his face, and a muscle is jumping in his jaw.

I start to laugh.

Valerian looks mutinous. “Ruin my fun, will you?”

For a moment, I think they’re going to fight, although I cannot think why. Then I see what Cardan’s got in his hand. The salt from my basket. The antidote. (Why did I want that? I wonder.) He tosses it up into the air with a laugh, and I watch it scatter with the wind. Then he looks at Valerian, mouth curling. “What’s wrong with you, Valerian? If she dies, your little prank is over before it begins.”

“I’m not going to die,” I say, because I don’t want them to worry. I feel fine. I feel better than I have ever felt in my entire life. I’m glad the antidote is gone.

“Prince Cardan?” Noggle says. “She ought to be taken home.”

“Everyone is so dull today,” Cardan says, but he doesn’t sound as if he’s bored. He sounds as if he’s barely keeping his temper in check.

“Oh, Noggle, she doesn’t wish to go.” Nicasia comes over to me and strokes my cheek. “Do you, pretty thing?”

The cloying taste of honey is in my mouth. I feel light. I am unwinding. I am unfurling like a banner. “I’d like to stay,” I say, because here is wondrous. Because she is dazzling.

I’m not sure I feel good, but I know I feel great.

Everything is wondrous. Even Cardan. I didn’t like him before, but that seems silly. I give him a wide, happy grin, although he doesn’t smile in return.

I don’t take it personally.

Noggle turns away from us, muttering something about the general and foolishness and princes getting their heads removed from their shoulders. Cardan watches him go, hands fisting at his sides.

A knot of girls flop down in the moss beside me. They’re laughing, which makes me laugh again, too. “I’ve never seen a mortal take the fruits of Elfhame before,” one of them, Flossflower, says to another. “Will she remember this?”

“Would that someone would enchant her to do otherwise,” Locke says from somewhere behind me, but he doesn’t sound angry like Cardan. He sounds nice. I turn toward him, and he touches my shoulder. I lean into the warmth of his skin.

Nicasia laughs. “She wouldn’t want that. What she’d like is another bite of apple.”

My mouth waters at the memory. I recall them strewn across my path, golden and glittering, on the way to school and curse my foolishness for not stopping to eat my fill.

“So we can ask her things?” Another girl—Moragna—wants to know. “Embarrassing things. And she’ll answer?”

“Why should she find anything embarrassing when she’s among friends?” says Nicasia, eyes slitted. She looks like a cat that has eaten all the cream and is ready for a nap in the sun.

“Which one of us would you most like to kiss?” Flossflower demands, coming closer. She’s barely spoken to me before. I’m glad she wants to be friends.

“I’d like to kiss all of you,” I say, which makes them scream with laughter. I grin up at the stars.

“You’re wearing too many clothes,” Nicasia says, frowning at my skirts. “And they’ve grown dirty. You should take them off.”

My dress does seem abruptly heavy. I imagine myself naked in the moonlight, my skin turned as silvery as the leaves above us.

I stand. Everything feels as if it’s going a bit sideways. I start pulling off my clothes.

“You’re right,” I say, delighted. My gown slides into a puddle of cloth that I can easily step out of. I am wearing mortal underclothes—a mint-and-black polka-dotted bra and underpants.

They’re all staring at me oddly, as though wondering where I got my underwear. All of them so resplendent that it is difficult for me to look too long without my head hurting.

I am conscious of the softness of my body, of the calluses on my hands, and of the sway of my breasts. I am conscious of the soft tickle of grass underneath my feet and the warm earth.

“Am I beautiful like you are?” I ask Nicasia, genuinely curious.

“No,” she says, darting a look toward Valerian. She picks up something from the ground. “You are nothing like us.” I am sorry to hear it but not surprised. Beside them, anyone might as well be a shadow, a blurry reflection of a reflection.

Valerian points to the rowan necklace that dangles around my throat, dried red berries threaded onto a long silver chain. “You should take that off, too.”

I nod conspiratorially. “You’re right,” I say. “I don’t need it anymore.”

Nicasia smiles, holding up the golden thing she has in her hand. The filthy, mashed remains of the apple. “Come lick my hands clean. You don’t mind, do you? But you have to do it on your knees.”

Gasping and tittering spread through our classmates like a breeze. They want me to do it. I want to make them happy. I want everyone to be as happy as I am. And I do want another taste of the fruit. I begin to crawl toward Nicasia.

“No,” Cardan says, stepping in front of me, his voice ringing and a little unsteady. The others back off, giving him room. He toes off his soft leather shoe and puts one pale foot directly in front of me. “Jude will come here and kiss my foot. She said she wanted to kiss us. And I am her prince, after all.”

I laugh again. Honestly, I don’t know why I laughed so infrequently before. Everything is marvelous and ridiculous.

Looking up at Cardan, though, something strikes me wrong. His eyes are glittering with fury and desire and maybe even shame. A moment later, he blinks, and it’s just his usual chilly arrogance.

“Well? Be quick about it,” he says impatiently. “Kiss my foot and tell me how great I am. Tell me how much you admire me.”

“Enough,” Locke says sharply to Cardan. He’s got his hands on my shoulders and is pulling me roughly to my feet. “I’m taking her home.”

“Are you, now?” Cardan asks him, eyebrows raised. “Interesting timing. You like the savor of a little humiliation, just not too much?”

“I hate it when you get like this,” Locke says under his breath.

Cardan pulls a pin from his coat, a glittering, filigree thing in the shape of an acorn with an oak leaf behind it. For a delirious moment, I think he’s going to give it to Locke in exchange for leaving me there. That seems impossible, even to my wild mind.

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