Home > The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(9)

The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)(9)
Author: Holly Black

I meet my sisters in front of Madoc’s stables, where silver-shod faerie horses are penned up beside enormous toads ready to be saddled and bridled and reindeer with broad antlers hung with bells. Vivi is wearing black jeans and a white shirt, mirrored sunglasses hiding her cat eyes. Taryn has on pink jeggings, a fuzzy cardigan, and a pair of ankle boots.

We try to imitate girls we see in the human world, girls in magazines, girls we see on movie screens in air-conditioned theaters, eating candy so sweet it makes my teeth ache. I don’t know what people think when they look at us. These clothes are a costume for me. I am playing dress-up in ignorance. I no more can guess the assumptions that go along with glittering sneakers than a child in a dragon costume knows what real dragons would make of the color of her scales.

Vivi picks stalks of ragwort that grow near the water troughs. After finding three that meet her specifications, she lifts the first and blows on it, saying, “Steed, rise and bear us where I command.”

With those words, she tosses the stalk to the ground, and it becomes a raw-boned yellow pony with emerald eyes and a mane that resembles lacy foliage. It makes an odd keening neigh. She throws down two more stalks, and moments later three ragwort ponies snort the air and snuffle at the ground. They look a little like sea horses and will ride over land and sky, according to Vivi’s command, keeping their seeming for hours before collapsing back into weeds.

It turns out that passing between Faerie and the mortal world isn’t all that difficult. Faerie exists beside and below mortal towns, in the shadows of mortal cities, and at their rotten, derelict, worm-eaten centers. Faeries live in hills and valleys and barrows, in alleys and abandoned mortal buildings. Vivi isn’t the only faerie from our islands to sneak across the sea and into the human world with some regularity, although most don mortal guises to mess with people. Less than a month ago, Valerian was bragging about campers he and his friends had tricked into feasting with them, gorging on rotten leaves enchanted to look like delicacies.

I climb onto my ragwort steed and wrap my hands around the creature’s neck. There is always a moment when it begins to move that I can’t help grinning. There is something about the sheer impossibility of it, the magnificence of the woods streaking by and the way the ragwort hooves kick up gravel as they leap up into the air, that gives me an electric rush of pure adrenaline.

I swallow the howl clawing up my throat.

We ride over the cliffs and then the sea, watching mermaids leap in the spangled waves and selkies rolling along the surf. Past the fog perpetually surrounding the islands and concealing them from mortals. And then on to the shoreline, past Two Lights State Park, a golf course, and a jetport. We touch down in a small tree-covered patch across the road from the Maine Mall. Vivi’s shirt flutters in the wind as she lands. Taryn and I dismount. With a few words from Vivi, the ragwort steeds become just three half-wilted weeds among others.

“Remember where we parked,” Taryn says with a grin, and we start toward the mall.

Vivi loves this place. She loves to drink mango smoothies, try on hats, and buy whatever we want with acorns she enchants to pass as money. Taryn doesn’t love it the way Vivi does, but she has fun. When I am here, though, I feel like a ghost.

We strut through the JCPenney as though we’re the most dangerous things around. But when I see human families all together, especially families with sticky-mouthed, giggling little sisters, I don’t like the way I feel.


I don’t imagine myself back in a life like theirs; what I imagine is going over there and scaring them until they cry.

I would never, of course.

I mean, I don’t think I would.

Taryn seems to notice the way my gaze snags on a child whining to her mother. Unlike me, Taryn is adaptable. She knows the right things to say. She’d be okay if she were thrust back into this world. She’s okay now. She will fall in love, just as she said. She will metamorphose into a wife or consort and raise faerie children who will adore and outlive her. The only thing holding her back is me.

I am so glad she can’t guess my thoughts.

“So,” Vivi says. “We’re here because you both could use some cheering up. So cheer up.”

I look over at Taryn and take a deep breath, ready to apologize. I don’t know if that’s what Vivi had in mind, but it’s what I’ve known I had to do since I got out of bed. “I’m sorry,” I blurt out.

“You’re probably mad,” Taryn says at the same time.

“At you?” I am astonished.

Taryn droops. “I swore to Cardan that I wouldn’t help you, even though I came with you that day to help.”

I shake my head vehemently. “Really, Taryn, you’re the one who should be angry that I got you tossed into the water in the first place. Getting yourself out of there was the smart thing to do. I would never be mad about that.”

“Oh,” she says. “Okay.”

“Taryn told me about the prank you played on the prince,” Vivi says. I see myself reflected in her sunglasses, doubled, quadrupled with Taryn beside me. “Pretty good, but now you’re going to have to do something much worse. I’ve got ideas.”

“No!” Taryn says with vehemence. “Jude doesn’t need to do anything. She was just upset about Madoc and the tournament. If she goes back to ignoring them, they’ll go back to ignoring her, too. Maybe not at first, but eventually.”

I bite my lip because I don’t think that’s true.

“Forget Madoc. Knighthood would have been boring anyway,” Vivi says, effectively dismissing the thing I’ve been working toward for years. I sigh. It’s annoying, but also reassuring that she doesn’t think it’s that big a deal, when the loss has felt overwhelming to me.

“So what do you want to do?” I ask Vivi to avoid any more of this discussion. “Are we seeing a movie? Do you want to try on lipsticks? Don’t forget you promised me coffee.”

“I want you to meet my girlfriend,” Vivienne says, and I remember the pink-haired girl in the strip of photos. “She asked me to move in with her.”

“Here?” I ask, as though there could be any other place.

“The mall?” Vivi laughs at our expressions. “We’re going to meet her here today but probably find a different place to live. Heather doesn’t know Faerie exists, so don’t mention it, okay?”

When Taryn and I were ten, Vivi learned how to make ragwort horses. We ran away from Madoc’s house a few days later. At a gas station, Vivi enchanted a random woman to take us home with her.

I still remember the woman’s blank face as she drove. I wanted to make her smile, but no matter what funny faces I pulled, her expression didn’t change. We spent the night in her house, sick after having ice cream for dinner. I cried myself to sleep, clinging to a weeping Taryn.

After that, Vivi found us a motel room with a stove, and we learned how to cook macaroni and cheese from the package. We made coffee in the coffeepot because we remembered how our old house had smelled like it. We watched television and swam in the pool with other kids staying in the motel.

I hated it.

We lived that way for two weeks before Taryn and I begged Vivi to take us home, to take us back to Faerie. We missed our beds, we missed the food we were used to, we missed magic.

I think it broke Vivi’s heart to return, but she did it. And she stayed. Whatever else I can say about Vivi, when it really mattered, she stuck by us.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that she didn’t plan to stay forever.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Taryn demands.

“I am telling you. I just did,” Vivi says, leading us past stores with looping images of video games, past gleaming displays of bikinis and flowing maxi dresses, past cheese-injected pretzels and stores with counters full of gleaming, heart-shaped diamonds promising true love. Strollers stream past, groups of teenage boys in jerseys, elderly couples holding hands.

“You should have said something sooner,” says Taryn, hands on her hips.

“Here’s my plan to cheer you up,” Vivi says. “We all move to the human world. Move in with Heather. Jude doesn’t have to worry about knighthood, and Taryn doesn’t have to throw herself away on some silly faerie boy.”

“Does Heather know about this plan?” Taryn asks skeptically.

Vivi shakes her head, smiling.

“Sure,” I say, trying to make a joke of it. “Except that I have no marketable skills other than swinging around a sword and making up riddles, neither of which probably pay all that well.”

“The mortal world is where we grew up,” Vivi insists, climbing onto a bench and walking the length of it, acting as though it were a stage. She pushes her sunglasses up onto her head. “You’d get used to it again.”

“Where you grew up.” She was nine when we were taken; she remembers so much more about being human than we do. It’s unfair, since she’s also the one with magic.

“The Folk are going to keep treating you like crap,” Vivi says, and hops down in front of us, cat eyes flashing. A lady with a baby carriage swerves to avoid us.

“What do you mean?” I look away from Vivi, concentrating on the pattern of the tiles under my feet.

“Oriana acts like you two being mortal is some kind of awful surprise that gets sprung on her all over again every morning,” she says. “And Madoc killed our parents, so that sucks. And then there are the jerks at school that you don’t like to talk about.”

“I was just talking about those jerks,” I say, not giving her the satisfaction of being shocked by what she said about our parents. She acts like we don’t remember, like there’s some way I am ever going to forget. She acts like it’s her personal tragedy and hers alone.

“And you didn’t like it.” Vivi looks immensely pleased with herself for that particular riposte. “Did you really think that being a knight would make everything better?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

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