Home > The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(2)

The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(2)
Author: Holly Black

A black horse was nibbling the grass of the lawn when they went outside. Its eyes were big and soft. Jude wanted to throw her arms around its neck and press her wet face into its silky mane. Before she could, the tall man swung her and then Taryn across the saddle, handling them like baggage rather than children. He put Vivi up behind him.

“Hold on,” he said.

Jude and her sisters wept the whole way to Faerieland.

In Faerie, there are no fish sticks, no ketchup, no television.

I sit on a cushion as an imp braids my hair back from my face. The imp’s fingers are long, her nails sharp. I wince. Her black eyes meet mine in the claw-footed mirror on my dressing table.

“The tournament is still four nights away,” the creature says. Her name is Tatterfell, and she’s a servant in Madoc’s household, stuck here until she works off her debt to him. She’s cared for me since I was a child. It was Tatterfell who smeared stinging faerie ointment over my eyes to give me True Sight so that I could see through most glamours, who brushed the mud from my boots, and who strung dried rowan berries for me to wear around my neck so I might resist enchantments. She wiped my wet nose and reminded me to wear my stockings inside out, so I’d never be led astray in the forest. “And no matter how eager you are for it, you cannot make the moon set nor rise any faster. Try to bring glory to the general’s household tonight by appearing as comely as we can make you.”

I sigh.

She’s never had much patience with my peevishness. “It’s an honor to dance with the High King’s Court under the hill.”

The servants are overfond of telling me how fortunate I am, a bastard daughter of a faithless wife, a human without a drop of faerie blood, to be treated like a trueborn child of Faerie. They tell Taryn much the same thing.

I know it’s an honor to be raised alongside the Gentry’s own children. A terrifying honor, of which I will never be worthy.

It would be hard to forget it, with all the reminders I am given.

“Yes,” I say instead, because she is trying to be kind. “It’s great.”

Faeries can’t lie, so they tend to concentrate on words and ignore tone, especially if they haven’t lived among humans. Tatterfell gives me an approving nod, her eyes like two wet beads of jet, neither pupil nor iris visible. “Perhaps someone will ask for your hand and you’ll be made a permanent member of the High Court.”

“I want to win my place,” I tell her.

The imp pauses, hairpin between her fingers, probably considering pricking me with it. “Don’t be foolish.”

There’s no point in arguing, no point to reminding her of my mother’s disastrous marriage. There are two ways for mortals to become permanent subjects of the Court: marrying into it or honing some great skill—in metallurgy or lute playing or whatever. Not interested in the first, I have to hope I can be talented enough for the second.

She finishes braiding my hair into an elaborate style that makes me look as though I have horns. She dresses me in sapphire velvet. None of it disguises what I am: human.

“I put in three knots for luck,” the little faerie says, not unkindly.

I sigh as she scuttles toward the door, getting up from my dressing table to sprawl facedown on my tapestry-covered bed. I am used to having servants attend to me. Imps and hobs, goblins and grigs. Gossamer wings and green nails, horns and fangs. I have been in Faerie for ten years. None of it seems all that strange anymore. Here, I am the strange one, with my blunt fingers, round ears, and mayfly life.

Ten years is a long time for a human.

After Madoc stole us from the human world, he brought us to his estates on Insmire, the Isle of Might, where the High King of Elfhame keeps his stronghold. There, Madoc raised us—me and Vivienne and Taryn—out of an obligation of honor. Even though Taryn and I are the evidence of Mom’s betrayal, by the customs of Faerie, we’re his wife’s kids, so we’re his problem.

As the High King’s general, Madoc was away often, fighting for the crown. We were well cared for nonetheless. We slept on mattresses stuffed with the soft seed-heads of dandelions. Madoc personally instructed us in the art of fighting with the cutlass and dagger, the falchion and our fists. He played Nine Men’s Morris, Fidchell, and Fox and Geese with us before a fire. He let us sit on his knee and eat off his plate.

Many nights I drifted off to sleep to his rumbling voice reading from a book of battle strategy. And despite myself, despite what he’d done and what he was, I came to love him. I do love him.

It’s just not a comfortable kind of love.

“Nice braids,” Taryn says, rushing into my room. She’s dressed in crimson velvet. Her hair is loose—long chestnut curls that fly behind her like a capelet, a few strands braided with gleaming silver thread. She hops onto the bed beside me, disarranging my small pile of threadbare stuffed animals—a koala, a snake, a black cat—all beloved of my seven-year-old self. I cannot bear to throw out any of my relics.

I sit up to take a self-conscious look in the mirror. “I like them.”

“I’m having a premonition,” Taryn says, surprising me. “We’re going to have fun tonight.”

“Fun?” I’d been imagining myself frowning at the crowd from our usual bolt-hole and worrying over whether I’d do well enough in the tournament to impress one of the royal family into granting me knighthood. Just thinking about it makes me fidgety, yet I think about it constantly. My thumb brushes over the missing tip of my ring finger, my nervous tic.

“Yes,” she says, poking me in the side.

“Hey! Ow!” I scoot out of range. “What exactly does this plan entail?” Mostly, when we go to Court, we hide ourselves away. We’ve watched some very interesting things, but from a distance.

She throws up her hands. “What do you mean, what does fun entail? It’s fun!”

I laugh a little nervously. “You have no idea, either, do you? Fine. Let’s go see if you have a gift for prophecy.”

We are getting older and things are changing. We are changing. And as eager as I am for it, I am also afraid.

Taryn pushes herself off my bed and holds out her arm, as though she’s my escort for a dance. I allow myself to be guided from the room, my hand going automatically to assure myself that my knife is still strapped to my hip.

The interior of Madoc’s house is whitewashed plaster and massive, rough-cut wooden beams. The glass panes in the windows are stained gray as trapped smoke, making the light strange. As Taryn and I go down the spiral stairs, I spot Vivi hiding in a little balcony, frowning over a comics zine stolen from the human world.

Vivi grins at me. She’s in jeans and a billowy shirt—obviously not intending to go to the revel. Being Madoc’s legitimate daughter, she feels no pressure to please him. She does what she likes. Including reading magazines that might have iron staples rather than glue binding their pages, not caring if her fingers get singed.

“Heading somewhere?” she asks softly from the shadows, startling Taryn.

Vivi knows perfectly well where we’re heading.

When we first came here, Taryn and Vivi and I would huddle in Vivi’s big bed and talk about what we remembered from home. We’d talk about the meals Mom burned and the popcorn Dad made. Our next-door neighbors’ names, the way the house smelled, what school was like, the holidays, the taste of icing on birthday cakes. We’d talk about the shows we’d watched, rehashing the plots, recalling the dialogue until all our memories were polished smooth and false.

There’s no more huddling in bed now, rehashing anything. All our new memories are of here, and Vivi has only a passing interest in those.

She’d vowed to hate Madoc, and she stuck to her vow. When Vivi wasn’t reminiscing about home, she was a terror. She broke things. She screamed and raged and pinched us when we were content. Eventually, she stopped all of it, but I believe there is a part of her that hates us for adapting. For making the best of things. For making this our home.

“You should come,” I tell her. “Taryn’s in a weird mood.”

Vivi gives her a speculative look and then shakes her head. “I’ve got other plans.” Which might mean she’s going to sneak over to the mortal world for the evening or it might mean she’s going to spend it on the balcony, reading.

Either way, if it annoys Madoc, it pleases Vivi.

He’s waiting for us in the hall with his second wife, Oriana. Her skin is the bluish color of skim milk, and her hair is as white as fresh-fallen snow. She is beautiful but unnerving to look at, like a ghost. Tonight she is wearing green and gold, a mossy dress with an elaborate shining collar that makes the pink of her mouth, her ears, and her eyes stand out. Madoc is dressed in green, too, the color of deep forests. The sword at his hip is no ornament.

Outside, past the open double doors, a hob waits, holding the silver bridles of five dappled faerie steeds, their manes braided in complicated and probably magical knots. I think of the knots in my hair and wonder how similar they are.

“You both look well,” Madoc says to Taryn and me, the warmth in his tone making the words a rare compliment. His gaze goes to the stairs. “Is your sister on her way?”

“I don’t know where Vivi is,” I lie. Lying is so easy here. I can do it all day long and never be caught. “She must have forgotten.”

Disappointment passes over Madoc’s face, but not surprise. He heads outside to say something to the hob holding the reins. Nearby, I see one of his spies, a wrinkled creature with a nose like a parsnip and a back hunched higher than her head. She slips a note into his hand and darts off with surprising nimbleness.

Oriana looks us over carefully, as though she expects to find something amiss.

“Be careful tonight,” Oriana says. “Promise me you will neither eat nor drink nor dance.”

“We’ve been to Court before,” I remind her, a Faerie nonanswer if ever there was one.

“You may think salt is sufficient protection, but you children are forgetful. Better to go without. As for dancing, once begun, you mortals will dance yourselves to death if we don’t prevent it.”

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