The Queen of Nothing Page 2

“Keen marksmanship so impresses our father,” Prince Dain said with a small, teasing smile. “But perhaps it is too difficult. Better not to make the attempt than to fail.”

For Cardan, who could not attract his father’s good notice and desperately wanted it, the prospect was tempting. He didn’t ask himself who the mortal was or how he had come to be at the Court. Cardan certainly never suspected that the man was beloved of Val Moren and that the seneschal would go mad with grief if the man died.

Leaving Dain free to assume a more prominent position at the High King’s right hand.

“Too difficult? Better not to make the attempt? Those are the words of a coward,” Cardan said, full of childish bravado. In truth, his brother intimidated him, but that only made him more scornful.

Prince Dain smiled. “Let us exchange arrows at least. Then if you miss, you can say that it was my arrow that went awry.”

Prince Cardan ought to have been suspicious of this kindness, but he’d had little enough of the real thing to tell true from false.

Instead, he notched Dain’s arrow and pulled back the bowstring, aiming for the walnut. A sinking feeling came over him. He might not shoot true. He might hurt the man. But on the heels of that, angry glee sparked at the idea of doing something so horrifying that his father could no longer ignore him. If he could not get the High King’s attention for something good, then perhaps he could get it for something really, really bad.

Cardan’s hand wobbled.

The mortal’s liquid eyes watched him in frozen fear. Enchanted, of course. No one would stand like that willingly. That was what decided him.

Cardan forced a laugh as he relaxed the bowstring, letting the arrow fall out of the notch. “I simply will not shoot under these conditions,” he said, feeling ridiculous at having backed down. “The wind is coming from the north and mussing my hair. It’s getting all in my eyes.”

But Prince Dain raised his bow and loosed the arrow Cardan had exchanged with him. It struck the mortal through the throat. He dropped with almost no sound, eyes still open, now staring at nothing.

It happened so fast that Cardan didn’t cry out, didn’t react. He just stared at his brother, slow, terrible understanding crashing over him.

“Ah,” said Prince Dain with a satisfied smile. “A shame. It seems your arrow went awry. Perhaps you can complain to our father about that hair in your eyes.”

After, though he protested, no one would hear Prince Cardan’s side. Dain saw to that. He told the story of the youngest prince’s recklessness, his arrogance, his arrow. The High King would not even allow Cardan an audience.

Despite Val Moren’s pleas for execution, Cardan was punished for the mortal’s death in the way that princes are punished. The High King had Lady Asha locked away in the Tower of Forgetting in Cardan’s stead—something Eldred was relieved to have a reason to do, since he found her both tiresome and troublesome. Care of Prince Cardan was given over to Balekin, the eldest of the siblings, the cruelest, and the only one willing to take him.

And so was Prince Cardan’s reputation made. He had little to do but further it.

I, Jude Duarte, High Queen of Elfhame in exile, spend most mornings dozing in front of daytime television, watching cooking competitions and cartoons and reruns of a show where people have to complete a gauntlet by stabbing boxes and bottles and cutting through a whole fish. In the afternoons, if he lets me, I train my brother, Oak. Nights, I run errands for the local faeries.

I keep my head down, as I probably should have done in the first place. And if I curse Cardan, then I have to curse myself, too, for being the fool who walked right into the trap he set for me.

As a child, I imagined returning to the mortal world. Taryn and Vivi and I would rehash what it was like there, recalling the scents of fresh-cut grass and gasoline, reminiscing over playing tag through neighborhood backyards and bobbing in the bleachy chlorine of summer pools. I dreamed of iced tea, reconstituted from powder, and orange juice Popsicles. I longed for mundane things: the smell of hot asphalt, the swag of wires between streetlights, the jingles of commercials.

Now, stuck in the mortal world for good, I miss Faerieland with a raw intensity. It’s magic I long for, magic I miss. Maybe I even miss being afraid. I feel as though I am dreaming away my days, restless, never fully awake.

I drum my fingers on the painted wood of a picnic table. It’s early autumn, already cool in Maine. Late-afternoon sun dapples the grass outside the apartment complex as I watch Oak play with other children in the strip of woods between here and the highway. They are kids from the building, some younger and some older than his eight years, all dropped off by the same yellow school bus. They play a totally disorganized game of war, chasing one another with sticks. They hit as children do, aiming for the weapon instead of the opponent, screaming with laughter when a stick breaks. I can’t help noticing they are learning all the wrong lessons about swordsmanship.

Still, I watch. And so I notice when Oak uses glamour.

He does it unconsciously, I think. He’s sneaking toward the other kids, but then there’s a stretch with no easy cover. He keeps on toward them, and even though he’s in plain sight, they don’t seem to notice.

Closer and closer, with the kids still not looking his way. And when he jumps at them, stick swinging, they shriek with wholly authentic surprise.

He was invisible. He was using glamour. And I, geased against being deceived by it, didn’t notice until it was done. The other children just think he was clever or lucky. Only I know how careless it was.

I wait until the children head to their apartments. They peel off, one by one, until only my brother remains. I don’t need magic, even with leaves underfoot, to steal up on him. With a swift motion, I wrap my arm around Oak’s neck, pressing it against his throat hard enough to give him a good scare. He bucks back, nearly hitting me in the chin with his horns. Not bad. He attempts to break my hold, but it’s half-hearted. He can tell it’s me, and I don’t frighten him.

I tighten my hold. If I press my arm against his throat long enough, he’ll black out.

He tries to speak, and then he must start to feel the effects of not getting enough air. He forgets all his training and goes wild, lashing out, scratching my arms and kicking against my legs. Making me feel awful. I wanted him to be a little afraid, scared enough to fight back, not terrified.

I let go, and he stumbles away, panting, eyes wet with tears. “What was that for?” he wants to know. He’s glaring at me accusingly.

“To remind you that fighting isn’t a game,” I say, feeling as though I am speaking with Madoc’s voice instead of my own. I don’t want Oak to grow up as I did, angry and afraid. But I want him to survive, and Madoc did teach me how to do that.

How am I supposed to figure out how to give him the right stuff when all I know is my own messed-up childhood? Maybe the parts of it I value are the wrong parts. “What are you going to do against an opponent who wants to actually hurt you?”

“I don’t care,” Oak says. “I don’t care about that stuff. I don’t want to be king. I never want to be king.”

For a moment, I just stare at him. I want to believe he’s lying, but, of course, he can’t lie.

“We don’t always have a choice in our fate,” I say.

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