How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories Page 2

Cardan was uninterested in politics but well acquainted with his father’s indifference. “If you think I can help you, I can’t. He doesn’t like me, either.”

The troll woman—Aslog of the West, he supposed—scowled down at Cardan. “I am going to tell you a story,” she said finally. “And then I will ask you what meaning you find in the tale.”

“Another one? Is this about Queen Gliten, too?”

“Save your wit for your reply.”

“And if I don’t have an answer?”

She smiled down at him with no small amount of menace. “Then I will teach you an entirely different lesson.”

He thought about calling out to a servant. A groom might be close by, but he had endeared himself to none of them. And what could they do, anyway? Better to humor her and listen to her stupid tale.

“Once upon a time,” Aslog told him, “there was a boy with a wicked tongue.”

Cardan tried not to snort. Despite being a little afraid of her, despite knowing better, he had a tendency toward levity at the worst possible moments.

She went on. “He would say whatever awful thought came into his mind. He told the baker her bread was full of stones, told the butcher he was as ugly as a turnip, and told his own brothers and sisters they were of no more use than the mice who lived in their cupboard and nibbled the crumbs of the baker’s bad bread. And, though the boy was quite handsome, he scorned all the village maidens, saying they were as dull as toads.”

Cardan couldn’t help it. He laughed.

She gave him a dour look.

“I like the boy,” he said with a shrug. “He’s funny.”

“Well, no one else did,” she told him. “In fact, he annoyed the village witch so much that she cursed him. He behaved as though he had a heart of stone, so she gave him one. He would feel nothing—not fear, nor love, nor delight.

“Thereafter, the boy carried something heavy and hard inside his chest. All happiness fled from him. He could find no reason to get up in the morning and even less reason to go to bed at night. Even mockery gave him no pleasure anymore. Finally, his mother told him it was time to go into the world and make his fortune. Perhaps there he would find a way to break the curse.

“And so the boy set out with nothing in his pockets but a crust of the baker’s much-maligned bread. He walked and walked until he came to a town. Although he felt neither joy nor sorrow, he did feel hunger, and that was enough reason to look for work. The boy found a tavernkeeper willing to hire him on to help bottle the beer he brewed. In exchange, the boy would get a bowl of soup, a place by the fire, and a few coins. He labored three days, and when he was finished, the tavern-keeper paid him three copper pennies.

“As he was about to take his leave, the boy’s sharp tongue found something cutting to say, but since his stone heart allowed him to find no amusement in it, for the first time he swallowed his cruel words. Instead, he asked if the man knew anyone else with work for him.

“‘You’re a good lad, so I will tell you this, although perhaps it would be better if I didn’t,’ said the tavernkeeper. ‘The baron is looking to marry off his daughter. She is rumored to be so fearsome that no man can spend three nights in her chambers. But if you do, you’ll win her hand—and her dowry.’

“‘I fear nothing,’ said the boy, for his heart of stone made any feeling impossible.”

Cardan interrupted. “The moral is obvious. The boy wasn’t rude to the innkeeper, so he was given a quest. And because he was rude to the witch, he got cursed. So the boy shouldn’t be rude, right? Rude boys get punished.”

“Ah, but if the witch hadn’t cursed him, he would never have been given the quest, either, would he? He’d be back home, sharpening his wit on some poor candlemaker,” said the troll woman, pointing a long finger at him. “Listen a little longer, princeling.”

Cardan had grown up in the palace, a wild thing to be cosseted by courtiers and scowled at by the High King. No one much liked him, and he told himself he cared little for anyone else. And if he sometimes thought about how he might do something to win his father’s favor, something to make the Court respect him and love him, he kept that to himself. He certainly asked no one to tell him stories, and yet he found it was nice to be told one. He kept that to himself, too.

Aslog cleared her throat and began speaking again. “When the boy presented himself to the baron, the old man looked upon him with sadness. ‘Spend three nights with my daughter, showing no fear, and you shall marry her and inherit all that I have. But I warn you, no man has managed it, for she is under a curse.’

“‘I fear nothing,’ the boy told him.

“‘More’s the pity,’ said the baron.

“By day, the boy did not see the baron’s daughter. As evening came on, the servants bathed him and fed him an enormous meal of roasted lamb, apples, leeks, and bitter greens. Having no dread of what was ahead, he ate his fill, for never had he had a finer meal, and then rested in anticipation of the night ahead.

“Finally, the boy was led to a chamber with a bed at the center and a clawed-up couch tucked into a corner. Outside, he heard one of the servants whispering about what a tragedy it was for such a handsome lad to die so young.”

Cardan was leaning forward now, utterly captivated by the tale.

“He waited as the moon rose outside the window. And then something came in: a monster covered in fur, her mouth filled with three rows of razor-sharp teeth. All other suitors had run from her in terror or attacked her in rage. But the boy’s heart of stone kept him from feeling anything but curiosity. She gnashed her teeth, waiting for him to show fear. When he did not, but rather climbed into the bed, she followed, curling up at the end of it like an enormous cat.

“The bed was very fine, much more comfortable than sleeping on the floor of a tavern. Soon both were asleep. When the boy woke, he was alone.

“The household rejoiced when he emerged from the bedchamber, for no one had ever made it through a single night with the monster. The boy spent the day strolling through the gardens, but although they were glorious, he was troubled that no happiness could yet touch him. On the second night, the boy brought his evening meal with him to the bedchamber and set it on the floor. When the monster came in, he waited for her to eat before he took his portion. She roared in his face, but again he didn’t flee, and when he went to the bed, she followed.

“By the third night, the household was in a state of giddy anticipation. They dressed the boy like a bridegroom and planned for a wedding at dawn.”

Cardan heard something in her voice that suggested that wasn’t how things were going to go at all. “And then what?” he demanded. “Didn’t he break the curse?”

“Patience,” said Aslog the troll woman. “The third night, the monster came straight over, nuzzling him with a furred jaw. Perhaps she was excited, knowing that in mere hours her curse might be broken. Perhaps she felt some affection for him. Perhaps the curse compelled her to test his mettle. Whatever the reason, when he didn’t move away, she butted her head playfully against his chest. But she didn’t know her own strength. His back slammed against the wall, and he felt something crack in his chest.”

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