Home > The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(11)

The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(11)
Author: Holly Black

“I think we could both bear it better if no one else had to see,” she says, then takes a long pull of her tea.

“What?” I am surprised into not knowing what to say in return. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I think I could stand being teased and being made to cry if you didn’t know about it.” She gives me a steady look, as though evaluating how much truth I can handle. “I can’t just pretend my day was fine with you as a witness to what really happened. Sometimes it makes me not like you.”

“That’s not fair!” I exclaim.

She shrugs. “I know. That’s why I’m telling you. But what Cardan said to me doesn’t matter, and I want to pretend it didn’t happen, so I need you to pretend along with me. No reminders, no questions, no cautions.”

Stung, I stand and walk to her fireplace mantel, leaning my head against the carved stone. I can’t count the number of times she’s told me that messing with Cardan and his friends is stupid. And yet, given what she’s saying now, whatever made her cry this afternoon has nothing to do with me. Which means she’s gotten into some kind of trouble all on her own.

Taryn might have a lot of advice to give; I am not sure she’s taking all of it.

“So what do you want me to do?” I ask.

“I want you to fix things with him,” she says. “Prince Cardan’s got all the power. There’s no winning against him. No matter how brave or clever or even cruel you are, Jude. End this, before you get really hurt.”

I look at her uncomprehendingly. Avoiding Cardan’s wrath now seems impossible. That ship has sailed—and burned up in the harbor. “I can’t,” I tell her.

“You heard what Prince Cardan said by the river—he just wants you to give up. It’s a blow to his pride, and it hurts his status, you acting like you’re not afraid of him.” She takes my arm at the wrist, pulling me close. I can smell the sharp scent of herbs on her breath. “Tell him that he’s won and you’ve lost. They’re just words. You don’t have to mean them.”

I shake my head.

“Don’t fight him tomorrow,” she continues.

“I’m not withdrawing from the tournament,” I tell her.

“Even if it wins you nothing but more woe?” she asks.

“Even then,” I say.

“Do something else,” she insists. “Find a way. Fix it before it’s too late.”

I think of all the things she won’t say, all the things I wish I knew. But since she wants me to pretend everything is fine, all I can do is swallow my questions and leave her to her fire.

In my room, I find my tournament outfit spread out on my bed, scented with verbena and lavender.

It’s a slightly padded tunic stitched with metallic thread. The pattern is of a crescent moon turned on its side like a cup, with a droplet of red falling from one corner and a dagger beneath the whole. Madoc’s crest.

I cannot put on that tunic tomorrow and fail, not without bringing disgrace on my household. And although embarrassing Madoc might give me a contrary pleasure, a small revenge for denying me knighthood, I’d embarrass myself, too.

What I should do is go back to keeping my head down. Be decent, but not memorable. Let Cardan and his friends show off. Save up my skill to surprise the Court when Madoc gives me permission to seek a knighthood. If that ever happens.

That’s what I should do.

I knock the tunic to the floor and climb under the coverlets, pulling them up over my head so that I am slightly smothered. So that I breathe in my own warm breath. I fall asleep like that.

In the afternoon, when I rise, the garment is wrinkled, and I have no one to blame but myself.

“You are a foolish child,” Tatterfell says, scraping my hair into tight warrior braids. “With a memory like that of a sparrow.”

On my way to the kitchens, I pass Madoc in the hall. He is dressed all in green, his mouth pulled into a grim line.

“Hold a moment,” he says.

I do.

He frowns. “I know what it is to be young and hungry for glory.”

I bite my lip and say nothing. After all, he hasn’t asked me a question. We stand there, watching each other. His cat eyes narrow. There are so many unsaid things between us—so many reasons we can only be something like father and daughter, but never fully inhabit our roles. “You will come to understand this is for the best,” he says finally. “Enjoy your battle.”

I make a deep bow and head for the door, my trip to the kitchens abandoned. All I want to do is get away from the house, from the reminder that there is no place for me at the Court, no place for me in Faerie.

What you lack is nothing to do with experience.

The Summer Tournament is being held on the edge of a cliff on Insweal, the Isle of Woe. It’s far enough that I take a mount, a pale gray horse stabled beside a toad. The toad watches me with golden eyes as I saddle the mare and throw myself up onto her back. I arrive at the grounds out of sorts, slightly late, anxious, and hungry.

A crowd is already gathering around the tented box where the High King Eldred and the rest of the royals will sit. Long cream-colored banners whip through the air, flying Eldred’s symbol—a tree that is half white flowers and half thorns, roots dangling beneath it and a crown atop. The uniting of the Seelie Courts, the Unseelie Courts, and the wild fey, under one crown. The dream of the Greenbriar line.

The decadent eldest son, Prince Balekin, is sprawled in a carved chair, three attendants around him. His sister Princess Rhyia, the huntress, sits beside him. Her eyes are all on the potential combatants, readying themselves on the grounds.

A wave of panicky frustration comes over me at the sight of her intent expression. I so badly wanted her to choose me to be one of her knights. And though she can’t now, a sudden awful fear that I couldn’t have impressed her comes over me. Maybe Madoc was right. Maybe I lack the instinct for dealing death.

If I don’t try too hard today, at least I never need know if I would have been good enough.

My group is to go first because we are the youngest. Still in training, using wooden swords instead of live steel, unlike those who follow us. Bouts of fighting will last the whole day, broken up by bardic performances, a few feats of clever magic, displays of archery, and other skills. I can smell spiced wine in the air, but not yet that other perfume of tournaments—fresh blood.

Fand is organizing us into rows, handing out armbands in silver and gold. Her blue skin is even more blazingly cerulean under the bright sky. Her armor is varying shades of blue as well, from oceanic to berry, with her green sash cutting across the breastplate. She will stand out no matter how she fares, which is a calculated risk. If she does well, the audience cannot fail to notice. But she’d better do well.

As I approach the other students with their practice swords, I hear my name whispered. Unnerved, I look around, only to realize I am being scrutinized in a new way. Taryn and I are always noticeable, being mortal, but what makes us stand out is also what makes us unworthy of much regard. Today, however, that’s not so. The children of Faerie seem to be holding a single indrawn breath, waiting to see what my punishment will be for putting hands on Cardan the day before. Waiting to see what I am going to do next.

I look across the field at Cardan and his friends, with silver on their arms. Cardan is wearing silver on his chest, too, a plate of gleaming steel that hooks over his shoulders and seems more ornamental than protective. Valerian smirks at me.

I do not give him the satisfaction of smirking back.

Fand gives me a gold band and tells me where to stand. There are to be three rounds in the mock war and two sides. Each side has a cloak of hide to protect—one, that of a yellow deer; the other, that of silvery fox fur.

I drink some water out of a pewter carafe set out for participants and begin to warm up. My stomach is sour with the lack of food, but I no longer feel hungry. I feel sick, eaten up with nerves. I try to ignore everything but the exercises I move through to limber up my muscles.

And then it is time. We troop onto the field and salute the seat of the High King, although Eldred has not yet arrived. The crowd is thinner than it will be closer to sunset. Prince Dain is there, though, with Madoc beside him. Princess Elowyn strums a lute thoughtfully. Vivi and Taryn have come to watch, although I see neither Oriana nor Oak. Vivi gestures with a kebab of glistening fruit, making Princess Rhyia laugh.

Taryn watches me intently, as though trying to warn me with her gaze.

Fix it.

All through the first battle, I fight defensively. I avoid Cardan. Nor do I come near Nicasia, Valerian, or Locke, even when Valerian knocks Fand to the dirt. Even when Valerian rips down our deer hide.

Still, I do nothing.

Then we are called to the field for the second battle.

Cardan walks behind me. “You are docile today. Did your sister admonish you? She desires our approval very much.” One of his booted feet toes the clover-covered ground, kicking up a clod. “I imagine that if I asked, she’d roll with me right here until we turned her white gown green and then thank me for the honor of my favor.” He smiles, going in for the kill, leaning toward me as if confiding a secret. “Not that I’d be the first to green gown her.”

My good intentions evaporate on the wind. My blood is on fire, boiling in my veins. I do not have much power, but here is what I have—I can force his hand. Cardan might want to hurt me, but I can make him want to hurt me worse. We’re supposed to play at war. When they call us to our places, I play. I play as viciously as possible. My practice sword cracks against Cardan’s ridiculous chest plate. My shoulder bangs against Valerian’s shoulder so hard that he staggers back. I attack again and again, knocking down anyone wearing a silver armband. When the mock war is over, my eye is blackened and both of my knees are skinned and the gold side has won the second and third battles.

You’re no killer, Madoc said.

Right now I feel that I could be.

The crowd applauds, and it is as if I have suddenly woken from a dream. I forgot about them. A pixie tosses flower petals at us. From the stands, Vivi salutes me with a goblet of something as Princess Rhyia applauds politely. Madoc is no longer in the royal box. Balekin is gone, too. The High King Eldred is there, though, sitting on a slightly elevated platform, speaking with Dain, his expression remote.

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