Home > The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(10)

The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(10)
Author: Holly Black

Vivi swings on Taryn. “What about you?”

“Faerie is all we know.” Taryn holds up a hand to forestall any more argument. “Here, we wouldn’t have anything. There’d be no balls and no magic and no—”

“Well, I think I’d like it here,” Vivi snaps, and stalks off ahead of us, toward the Apple Store.

We’ve talked about it before, of course, how Vivi thinks we’re stupid for not being able to resist the intensity of Faerie, for desiring to stay in a place of such danger. Maybe growing up the way we have, bad things feel good to us. Or maybe we are stupid in the exact same way as every other idiot mortal who’s pined away for another bite of goblin fruit. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

A girl is standing in front of the entrance, playing around on her phone. The girl, I assume. Heather is small, with faded pink hair and brown skin. She’s wearing a t-shirt with a hand-drawn design across the front. There are pen stains on her fingers. I realize abruptly that she might be the artist who drew the comics I’ve seen Vivi pore over.

I begin a curtsy before I remember myself and awkwardly stick out a hand. “I’m Vivi’s sister Jude,” I say. “And this is Taryn.”

The girl shakes my hand. Her palm is warm, her grip nearly nonexistent.

It’s funny how Vivi, who tried so hard to escape being anything like Madoc, wound up falling in love with a human girl, as Madoc did.

“I’m Heather,” the girl says. “It’s great to meet you. Vee almost never talks about her family.”

Taryn and I glance at each other. Vee?

“You want to sit down or something?” Heather says, nodding toward the food court.

“Somebody owes me coffee,” I say pointedly to Vivi.

We order and sit and drink. Heather tells us that she’s in community college, studying art. She tells us about comics she likes and bands she’s into. We dodge awkward questions. We lie. When Vivi gets up to throw away our trash, Heather asks us if she’s the first girlfriend Vivi has let us meet.

Taryn nods. “That must mean she likes you a lot.”

“So can I visit your place now? My parents are ready to buy a toothbrush for Vee. How come I don’t get to meet hers?”

I almost snort my mocha. “Did she tell you anything about our family?”

Heather sighs. “No.”

“Our dad is really conservative,” I say.

A boy with spiky black hair and a wallet chain passes us, smiling in my direction. I have no idea what he wants. Maybe he knows Heather. She’s not paying attention. I don’t smile back.

“Does he even know Vee is bi?” Heather asks, astonished, but then Vivi returns to the table, so we don’t have to keep making up stuff. Liking both girls and boys is the only thing in this scenario Madoc wouldn’t be upset with Vivi about.

After that, the four of us wander the mall, trying on purple lipsticks and eating sour apple candy slices crusted in sugar that turn my tongue green. I delight in the chemicals that would doubtless sicken all the lords and ladies at the Court.

Heather seems nice. Heather has no idea what she’s getting herself into.

We say polite farewells near Newbury Comics. Vivi watches three kids picking out bobblehead figurines, her gaze avid. I wonder what she thinks as she moves among humans. At moments like that, she seems like a wolf learning the patterns of sheep. But when she kisses Heather, she is entirely sincere.

“I am glad you lied for me,” Vivi says as we retrace our steps through the mall.

“You’re going to have to tell her eventually,” I say. “If you’re serious. If you’re really moving to the mortal world to be with her.”

“And when you do, she’s still going to want to meet Madoc,” Taryn says, although I can see why Vivi wants to avoid that for as long as possible.

Vivi shakes her head. “Love is a noble cause. How can anything done in the service of a noble cause be wrong?”

Taryn chews her lip.

Before we leave, we stop by CVS, and I pick up tampons. Every time I buy them, it’s a reminder that while the Folk can look like us, they are a species apart. Even Vivi is a species apart. I divide the package in half and give the other portion to Taryn.

I know what you’re wondering. No, they don’t bleed once a month; yes, they do bleed. Annually. Sometimes less frequently than that. Yes, they have solutions—padding, mostly—and yes, those solutions suck. Yes, everything about it is embarrassing.

We start to cut across the parking lot toward our ragwort stalks when a guy about our age touches my arm, warm fingers closing just above my wrist.

“Hey, sweetheart.” I have an impression of a too-big black shirt, jeans, a chain wallet, spiky hair. The glint of a cheap knife in his boot. “I saw you before, and I was just wondering—”

I am turning before I can think, my fist cracking into his jaw. My booted foot hits his gut as he falls, rolling him over the pavement. I blink and find myself standing there, staring down at a kid who is gasping for air and starting to cry. My boot is raised to kick him in the throat, to crush his windpipe. The mortals standing around him are staring at me in horror. My nerves are jangling, but it’s an eager jangle. I am ready for more.

I think he was flirting with me.

I don’t even remember deciding to hit him.

“Come on!” Taryn jerks my arm, and all three of us run. Someone shouts.

I look over my shoulder. One of the boy’s friends has given chase. “Bitch!” he shouts. “Crazy bitch! Milo is bleeding!”

Vivi whispers a few words and makes a motion behind us. As she does, the crabgrass begins to grow, pushing gaps in the asphalt wider. The boy comes to a halt as something rushes by him, a look of confusion on his face. Pixie-led, they call it. He wanders through a row of cars as though he has no idea where he’s going. Unless he turns his clothes inside out, which I am fairly confident he doesn’t know to do, he’ll never find us.

We stop near the edge of the lot, and Vivi immediately begins to giggle. “Madoc would be so proud—his little girl, remembering all her training,” she says. “Staving off the terrifying possibility of romance.”

I am too stunned to say anything. Hitting him was the most honest thing I’ve done in a long time. I feel better than great. I feel nothing, a glorious emptiness.

“See,” I tell Vivi. “I can’t go back to the world. Look what I would do to it.”

To that, she has no response.

I think about what I did all the way home and then, again, at school. A lecturer from a Court near the coast explains how things wither and die. Cardan gives me a significant look as she explains decomposition, rot. But what I am thinking about is the stillness I felt when I hit that boy. That and the Summer Tournament tomorrow.

I dreamed of my triumph there. None of Cardan’s threats would have kept me from wearing the gold braid and fighting as hard as I could. Now, though, his threats are the only reason I have to fight—the sheer perverse glory of not backing down.

When we break to eat, Taryn and I climb up a tree to eat cheese and oatcakes slathered with chokecherry jelly. Fand calls up to me, wanting to know why I didn’t attend the rehearsal for the mock war.

“I forgot,” I call back to her, which is not particularly believable, but I don’t care.

“But you’re going to fight tomorrow?” she asks. If I pull out, Fand will have to rearrange teams.

Taryn gives me a hopeful look, as though I may come to my senses.

“I’ll be there,” I say. My pride compels me.

Lessons are almost over when I notice Taryn, standing beside Cardan, near a circle of thorn trees, weeping. I must not have been paying attention, must have gotten too involved in packing up our books and things. I didn’t even see Cardan take my sister aside. I know she would have gone, though, no matter the excuse. She still believes that if we do what they want, they’ll get bored and leave us alone. Maybe she’s right, but I don’t care.

Tears spill over her cheeks.

There is such a deep well of rage inside me.

You’re no killer.

I leave my books and cross the grass toward them. Cardan half-turns, and I shove him so hard that his back hits one of the trees. His eyes go wide.

“I don’t know what you said to her, but don’t you ever go near my sister again,” I tell him, my hand still on the front of his velvet doublet. “You gave her your word.”

I can feel the eyes of all the other students on me. Everyone’s breath is drawn.

For a moment, Cardan just stares at me with stupid, crow-black eyes. Then one corner of his mouth curls. “Oh,” he says. “You’re going to regret doing that.”

I don’t think he realizes just how angry I am or how good it feels, for once, to give up on regrets.

Taryn won’t tell me what Prince Cardan said to her. She insists that it had nothing to do with me, that he wasn’t actually breaking his promise not to hold her accountable for my bad behavior, that I should forget about her and worry about myself.

“Jude, give it up.” She sits in front of the fire in her bedroom, drinking a cup of nettle tea from a clay mug shaped like a snake, its tail coiling to make the handle. She has on her dressing gown, scarlet to match the flames in the grate. Sometimes when I look at her, it seems impossible that her face is also mine. She looks soft, pretty, like a girl in a painting. Like a girl who fits inside her own skin.

“Just tell me what he said,” I press.

“There’s nothing to tell,” Taryn says. “I know what I’m doing.”

“And what’s that?” I ask her, my eyebrows lifting, but she only sighs.

We’ve gone three rounds like this already. I keep thinking of the lazy blink of Cardan’s lashes over his coal-bright eyes. He looked gleeful, gloating, as though my fist tightening on his shirt was exactly what he would have wished. As though, if I struck him, it would be because he had made me do it.

“I can annoy you in the hills and also the dales,” I say, poking her in the arm. “I will chase you from crag to crag across all three islands until you tell me something.”

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