Home > The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(8)

The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(8)
Author: Holly Black

Then a shove at my shoulders and the horrible shock of cold water closing over me. I sputter, trying to breathe. I taste mud and reeds. I shove myself up. Taryn and I are waist-high in the river, the current pushing us downstream toward a deeper, rougher part. I dig my feet into the muck at the bottom to keep from being swept away. Taryn is gripping a boulder, her hair wet. She must have slipped.

“There are nixies in this river,” Valerian says. “If you don’t get out before they find you, they’ll pull you under and hold you there. Their sharp teeth will sink into your skin.” He mimes taking a bite.

They’re all along the riverbank, Cardan closest, Valerian beside him. Locke brushes his hand over the tops of cattails and bulrushes, looking abstracted. He does not seem kind now. He seems bored with his friends and with us, too.

“Nixies can’t help what they are,” Nicasia says, kicking the water so that it splashes my face. “Just like you won’t be able to help drowning.”

I dig my feet deeper into the mud. The water filling my boots makes it hard to move my legs, but the mud locks them in place when I manage to stand still. I don’t know how I am going to get to Taryn without slipping.

Valerian is emptying our schoolbags onto the riverbank. He and Nicasia and Locke take turns hurling the contents into the water. My leather-bound notebooks. Rolls of paper that disintegrate as they sink. The books of ballads and histories make an enormous splash, then lodge between two stones and will not budge. My fine pen and nibs shimmer along the bottom. My inkpot shatters on the rocks, turning the river vermilion.

Cardan watches me. Although he doesn’t lift a finger, I know this is all his doing. In his eyes, I see all the vast alienness of Faerie.

“Is this fun?” I call to the shore. I am so furious that there’s no room for being scared. “Are you enjoying yourselves?”

“Enormously,” says Cardan. Then his gaze slides from me to where shadows rest under the water. Are those nixies? I cannot tell. I just keep moving toward Taryn.

“This is just a game,” Nicasia says. “But sometimes we play too hard with our toys. And then they break.”

“It’s not like we drowned you ourselves,” Valerian calls.

My foot slips on slick rocks, and I am under, swept downstream helplessly, gulping muddy water. I panic, snorting into my lungs. I thrust out a hand, and it closes on the root of a tree. I get my balance again, gasping and coughing.

Nicasia and Valerian are laughing. Locke’s expression is unreadable. Cardan has one foot in the reeds, as though to get a better look. Furious and sputtering, I push my way back to Taryn, who comes forward to grab my hand and squeeze it hard.

“I thought you were going to drown,” she says, the edge of hysteria in her voice.

“We’re fine,” I tell her. Digging my feet into the murk, I reach down for a rock. I find a large one and heft it up, green and slick with algae. “If the nixies come at us, I’ll hold them off.”

“Quit,” Cardan says. He’s looking directly at me. He does not even spare a glance for Taryn. “You should never have been tutored with us. Abandon thoughts of the tourney. Tell Madoc you don’t belong with us, your betters. Do that and I’ll save you.”

I stare at him.

“All you have to do is give in,” he says. “Easy.”

I look over at my sister. It’s my fault she’s wet and scared. The river is cold, despite the heat of summer, the current strong. “And you’ll save Taryn, too?”

“Oh, so you’ll do what I say for her sake?” Cardan’s gaze is hungry, devouring. “Does that feel noble?” He pauses, and in that silence, all I hear is Taryn’s hitched breath. “Well, does it?”

I look at the nixies, watch them for any sign of movement. “Why don’t you tell me how you want me to feel?”

“Interesting.” He takes another step closer, squatting and regarding us from eye level. “There are so few children in Faerie that I’ve never seen one of us twinned. Is it like being doubled or more like being divided in half?”

I don’t answer.

Behind him, I see Nicasia thread her arm through Locke’s and whisper something to him. He gives her a scathing look, and she pouts. Maybe they’re annoyed that we’re not currently being eaten.

Cardan frowns. “Twin sister,” he says, turning to Taryn. A smile returns to his mouth, as though a terrible new idea has come to delight him. “Would you make a similar sacrifice? Let’s find out. I have a most generous offer for you. Climb up the bank and kiss me on both my cheeks. Once that’s done, so long as you don’t defend your sister by word or deed, I won’t hold you accountable for her defiance. Now, isn’t that a good bargain? But you get it only if you come to us now and leave her there to drown. Show her that she will always be alone.”

For a moment, Taryn stands still, as if frozen.

“Go,” I say. “I’ll be fine.”

It still hurts when she wades toward the bank. But of course she should go. She will be safe, and the price is nothing that matters.

One of the pale shapes detaches from the others and swims toward her, but my shadow in the water makes it hesitate. I mime throwing the rock, and it jolts a little. They like easy prey.

Valerian takes Taryn’s hand and helps her out of the water as if she were a great lady. Her dress is soaked, dripping as she moves, like the dresses of water sprites or sea nymphs. She presses her bluish lips to Cardan’s cheeks, one and then the other. She keeps her eyes closed, but his are open, watching me.

“Say ‘I forsake my sister Jude,’” Nicasia tells her. “‘I won’t help her. I don’t even like her.’”

Taryn looks in my direction, quick and apologetic. “I don’t have to say that. That wasn’t part of the bargain.” The others laugh.

Cardan’s boot parts the thistles and bulrushes. Locke starts to speak, but Cardan cuts him off. “Your sister abandoned you. See what we can do with a few words? And everything can get so much worse. 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. We’re not mortal. We will break you. You’re a fragile little thing; we’d hardly need to try. Give up.”

“Never,” I say.

He smiles, smug. “Never? Never is like forever—too big for mortals to comprehend.”

The shape in the water remains where it is, probably because the presence of Cardan and the others makes it seem like I have friends who might defend me if I were attacked. I wait for Cardan’s next move, watching him carefully. I hope I look defiant. He scrutinizes me for a long, awful moment.

“Think on us,” he says to me. “All through your long, sodden, shameful walk home. Think on your answer. This is the least of what we can do.” With that, he turns away from us, and after a moment, the others turn, too. I watch him go. I watch them all go.

When they’re out of sight, I pull myself onto the bank, flopping onto my back in the mud next to where Taryn is standing. I take big, gulping breaths of air. The nixies begin to surface, looking at us with hungry, opalescent eyes. They peer at us through a patch of foxtails. One begins to crawl onto land.

I throw my rock. It doesn’t come close to hitting, but the splash startles them into not coming closer.

Grunting, I force myself up to begin walking. And all through our walk home, while Taryn makes soft, sobbing sounds, I think about how much I hate them and how much I hate myself. And then I don’t think about anything but lifting my wet boots, one step after another carrying me past the briars and fiddleheads and elms, past bushes of red-lipped cherries, barberries and damsons, past the wood sprites who nest in the rosebushes, home to a bath and a bed in a world that isn’t mine and might never be.

My head is pounding when Vivienne shakes me awake. She jumps up onto the bed, kicking off the coverlets and making the frame groan. I press a cushion over my face and curl up on my side, trying to ignore her and go back to dreamless slumber.

“Get up, sleepyhead,” she says, pulling back my blankets. “We’re going to the mall.”

I make a strangled noise and wave her away.

“Up!” she commands, leaping again.

“No,” I moan, burrowing deeper in what’s left of the blankets. “I’ve got to rehearse for the tournament.”

Vivi stops bouncing, and I realize that it’s no longer true. I don’t have to fight. Except that I foolishly told Cardan I would never quit.

Which makes me remember the river and the nixies and Taryn.

How she was right, and I was magnificently, extravagantly wrong.

“I’ll buy you coffee when we get there, coffee with chocolate and whipped cream.” Vivi is relentless. “Come on. Taryn’s waiting.”

I half-stumble out of bed. Standing, I scratch my hip and glare. She gives me her most charming smile, and I find my annoyance fading, despite myself. Vivi is often selfish, but she’s so cheerful about it and so encouraging of cheerful selfishness in others that it’s easy to have fun with her.

I dress quickly in the modern clothes I keep in the very back of my wardrobe—jeans, an old gray sweater with a black star on it, and a pair of glittery silver Converse high-tops. I pull my hair into a slouchy knitted hat, and when I catch a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror (carved so that it seems like a pair of bawdy fauns are on either side of the glass, leering), a different person is looking back at me.

Maybe the person I might have been if I’d been raised human.

Whoever that is.

When we were little, we used to talk about getting back to the human world all the time. Vivi kept saying that if she learned just a little more magic, we’d be able to go. We were going to find an abandoned mansion, and she was going to enchant birds to take care of us. They would buy us pizza and candy, and we would go to school only if we felt like it.

By the time Vivi learned how to travel there, though, reality had intruded on our plans. It turns out birds can’t really buy pizza, even if they’re enchanted.

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