Read The Cruel Prince Online

Authors: Holly Black

The Cruel Prince (8 page)

BOOK: The Cruel Prince

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.

I start to tremble all over, the adrenaline draining out of me. Courtiers, waiting for better battles, study my bruises and evaluate my prowess. No one seems particularly impressed. I have done my best, have fought my hardest, and it wasn't enough. Madoc didn't even stay to watch.

My shoulders slump.

Worse, Cardan is waiting for me when I get off the field. I am struck suddenly by his height, by the arrogant sneer he wears like a crown. He would seem like a prince even dressed in rags. Cardan grabs my face, fingers splayed against my neck. His breath is against my cheek. His other hand grabs my hair, winding it into a rope. “Do you know what mortal means? It means
born to die
. It means
deserving of death
. That's what you are, what defines you—dying. And yet here you stand, determined to oppose me even as you rot away from the inside out, you corrupt, corrosive mortal creature. Tell me how that is. Do you really think you can win against me? Against a prince of Faerie?”

I swallow hard. “No,” I say.

His black eyes simmer with rage. “So you're not completely lacking in some small amount of animal cunning. Good. Now, beg my forgiveness.”

I take a step back and tug, trying to wrench free of his grasp. He holds on to my braid, staring down into my face with hungry eyes and a small, awful smile. Then he opens his hand, letting me stagger free. Individual strands of hair flutter through the air.

On the periphery of my vision, I see Taryn standing with Locke, near where other knights are donning their armor. She looks at me pleadingly, as though she is the one who needs to be saved.

“Get down on your knees,” Cardan says, looking insufferably pleased with himself. His fury has transmuted into gloating. “Beg. Make it pretty. Flowery. Worthy of me.”

The other children of the Gentry are standing around in their padded tunics with their practice swords, watching, hoping my downfall will be amusing. This is the show they've been expecting since I stood up to him. This isn't a mock war; this is the real thing.

“Beg?” I echo.

For a moment, he looks surprised, but that's quickly replaced by even greater malice. “You
me. More than once. Your only hope is to throw yourself on my mercy in front of everyone. Do it, or I will keep on hurting you until there is nothing left to hurt.”

I think of the dark shapes of the nixies in the water and the boy at the revel, howling over his torn wing. I think of Taryn's tearstained face. I think of how Rhyia would never have chosen me, of how Madoc didn't even wait to see the conclusion of the battle.

There's no shame in surrender. As Taryn said, they're just words. I don't have to mean them. I can lie.

I start to lower myself to the ground. This will be over quickly, every word will taste like bile, and then it will be over.

When I open my mouth, though, nothing comes out.

I can't do it.

Instead, I shake my head at the thrill running through me at the sheer lunacy of what I'm about to do. It's the thrill of leaping without being able to see the ground below you, right before you realize that's called
. “You think because you can humiliate me, you can control me?” I say, looking him in those black eyes. “Well, I think you're an idiot. Since we started being tutored together, you've gone out of your way to make me feel like I'm less than you. And to coddle your ego, I have made myself less. I have made myself small, I have kept my head down. But it wasn't enough to make you leave Taryn and me alone, so I'm not going to do that anymore.

“I am going to keep on defying you. I am going to shame you with my defiance. You remind me that I am a mere mortal and you are a prince of Faerie. Well, let me remind you that means you have much to lose and I have nothing. You may win in the end, you may ensorcell me and hurt me and humiliate me, but I will make sure you lose everything I can take from you on the way down. I promise you this”—I throw his own words back at him—“
this is the least of what I can do

Cardan looks at me as though he's never seen me before. He looks at me as though no one has ever spoken to him like this. Maybe no one has.

I turn from him and begin walking, half-expecting Cardan to grab my shoulder and throw me to the ground, half-expecting him to find the rowan berry necklace at my throat, snap it, and speak the words that will make me crawl back to him, begging despite all my big talk. But he says nothing. I feel his gaze on my back, pricking the hairs on my neck. It is all I can do not to run.

I dare not look toward Taryn and Locke, but I catch a glimpse of Nicasia staring at me, openmouthed. Valerian looks furious, his hands fisted at his sides in mute rage.

I stagger past the tournament tents to a stone fountain, where I splash my face with water. I bend down, starting to clean the gravel from my knees. My legs feel stiff, and I am shaking all over.

“Are you all right?” Locke asks, gazing down with his tawny fox eyes. I didn't even hear him behind me.

I am not.

I am not all right, but he can't know that, and he shouldn't be asking.

“What do you care?” I say, spitting the words out. The way he's looking at me makes me feel more pathetic than ever.

He leans against the fountain, letting a slow, lazy smile grow on his mouth. “It's funny, that's all.”

“Funny?” I echo, furious. “You think that was funny?”

He shakes his head, still smiling. “No. It's funny how you get under his skin.”

At first, I'm not sure I heard him right. I almost ask whom he's talking about, because I can't quite believe he's admitting that high and mighty Cardan is affected by anything. “Like a splinter?” I say.

“Of iron. No one else bothers him quite the way that you do.” He picks up a towel and wets it, then kneels down beside me and carefully wipes my face. I suck in a breath when the cold cloth touches the sensitive part of my eye, but he is far gentler than I would have been to myself. His face is solemn and focused on what he's doing. He doesn't seem to notice my studying him, his long face and sharp chin, his curling red-brown hair, the way his eyelashes catch the light.

Then he does notice. He's looking at me, and I'm looking back at him, and it's the strangest thing, because I thought Locke would never notice anyone like me. He is noticing, though. He's smiling like he did that night at the Court, as though we shared a secret. He's smiling as if we're sharing another one.

“Keep it up,” he says.

I wonder at those words. Can he really mean them?

As I make my way back to the tournament and my sisters, I can't stop thinking of Cardan's shocked face, nor can I stop considering Locke's smile. I am not altogether sure which is more thrilling and which more dangerous.

he rest of the Summer Tournament goes by in a blur. Swordsfolk go toe-to-toe against one another in single combat, fighting for the honor of impressing the High King and his Court. Ogres and foxkin, goblins and gwyllions, all engaged in the deadly dance of battle.

After a few rounds, Vivi wants us to push through the crowd and buy more fruit skewers. I keep trying to catch Taryn's eye, but she won't allow it. I want to know if she's angry. I want to ask what Locke said to her when they were standing together, although that might be the exact sort of question she would forbid.

But the conversation with Locke couldn't have been the humiliating kind, the kind she tries to pretend away, could it? Not when he practically told me he delighted in Cardan's being brought low. Which makes me think of the other question I can't ask Taryn.

Not that I'd be the first to green gown her.
Faeries can't lie. Cardan couldn't have said it if he didn't believe it to be true—but why would he think that?

Vivi knocks her skewer against mine, bringing me out of my reverie. “To our clever Jude, who made the Folk remember why they stay in their barrows and hills, for fear of mortal ferocity.”

A tall man with the floppy ears of a rabbit and a mane of walnut-brown hair turns to give Vivi a dirty look. She grins at him. I shake my head, pleased by her toast, even if it's wild exaggeration. Even if I impressed no one but her.

“Would that Jude was just a bit less clever,” Taryn says under her breath.

I turn to her, but she has moved away.

When we get back to the arena, Princess Rhyia is readying herself for her bout. She holds a thin sword, very much like a long pin, and stabs at the empty air in preparation for an opponent. Her two lovers call out encouragements.

Cardan reemerges in the royal box, wearing loose white linen and a flower crown all of roses. He ignores the High King and Prince Dain and flops down in a chair beside Prince Balekin, with whom he exchanges a few sharp words that I dearly wish I were close enough to hear. Princess Caelia has arrived for her sister's bout and applauds wildly when Rhyia walks out onto the clover.

Madoc never returns.

I ride home alone. Vivi heads off with Rhyia after she wins her bout—they are going hunting in the nearby woods. Taryn agrees to accompany them, but I am too weary and too sore and too on edge.

In the kitchens of Madoc's house, I toast cheese over a fire and spread it on bread. Sitting on the stoop with that and a mug of tea, I watch the sun go down as I eat my lunch.

The cook, a trow named Wattle, ignores me and continues magicking the parsnips to chop themselves.

When I am done, I brush crumbs from my cheeks and head for my room.

Gnarbone, a servant with long ears and a tail that drags on the ground, stops in the hall when he sees me. He's carrying a tray of thimble-size acorn cups and a silvery decanter of what smells like blackberry wine in his large, clawed hands. His livery is pulled tight across his chest, and pieces of fur stick out of the gaps.

“Oh, you are at home,” he says, a growl in his voice that makes him seem menacing no matter how benign the words he speaks. Despite myself, I can't help thinking of the guard who bit off the tip of my finger. Gnarbone's teeth could snap off my whole hand.

I nod.

“The prince is asking for you downstairs.”

Cardan, here? My heartbeat speeds. I can't think. “Where?”

Gnarbone looks surprised by my reaction. “In Madoc's study. I was just bringing him this—”

I grab the tray out of his hands and head down the stairs, intent on getting rid of Cardan as quickly as I can, any way that I can. The last thing I need is for Madoc to overhear my being disrespectful and decide I'll never belong at the Court. He is a servant of the Greenbriar line, sworn as surely as anyone. He would not like my being at odds with even the least of the princes.

I fly down the stairs and kick open the door to Madoc's study. The knob crashes into a bookshelf as I stride into the room, plunking down the tray with enough force to make the cups dance.

Prince Dain has several books lying open on the library table in front of him. Golden curls fall over his eyes, and the collar of his pale blue doublet is open, showing a heavy silver torque at his throat. I halt, aware of the colossal mistake I have made.

He raises both eyebrows. “Jude. I didn't expect you to be in such a rush.”

I sink into a low bow and hope he will think me only clumsy. Fear gnaws at me, sharp and sudden. Could Cardan have sent him? Is he here to punish me for my insolence? I can think of no other reason that honored and honorable Prince Dain, soon to be the ruler of Faerie, would ask for me.

“Uh,” I say, panic tripping my tongue. With relief, I remember the tray and indicate the decanter. “Here. This is for you, my lord.”

He picks up an acorn and pours a little of the thick black liquid into the cup. “Will you drink with me?”

I shake my head, feeling completely out of my depth. “It will go straight to my head.”

That makes him laugh. “Well then, keep me company a time.”

“Of course.” That, I cannot possibly refuse. Alighting on an arm of one of the green leather chairs, I feel my heart thud dully. “May I get you anything else?” I ask, not sure how to proceed.

He lifts his acorn cup, as if in salute. “I have refreshment enough. What I require is conversation. Perhaps you can tell me what made you storm in here. Who did you think I was?”

“No one,” I say quickly. My thumb rubs over my ring finger, over the smooth skin of the missing tip.

He sits up straighter, as though I am suddenly much more interesting. “I thought maybe one of my brothers was bothering you.”

I shake my head. “Nothing like that.”

“It's shocking,” he says, as though he's giving me some great compliment. “I know humans can lie, but to watch you do it is incredible. Do it again.”

I feel my face heat. “I wasn't… I…”

“Do it again,” he repeats gently. “Don't be afraid.”

Only a fool wouldn't be, despite his words. Prince Dain came here when Madoc was not at home. He asked for me specifically. He implied he knew about Cardan—perhaps he glimpsed us after the mock war, Cardan jerking my head by my braid. But what does Dain want?

I am breathing too shallowly, too fast.

Dain, about to be crowned the High King, has the power to grant me a place in the Court, the power to gainsay Madoc and make me a knight. If only I could impress him, he could give me everything I want. Everything I thought I lost my shot at.

I draw myself up and look into the silvered gray of his eyes. “My name is Jude Duarte. I was born on November thirteenth, 2001. My favorite color is green. I like fog and sad ballads and chocolate-covered raisins. I can't swim. Now tell me, which part was the lie? Did I lie at all? Because what's so great about lying is the not knowing.”

I realize abruptly that he might not take any vow particularly seriously from me after that little performance. He looks pleased, though, smiling at me as if he'd found a rough ruby lying in the dirt. “Now,” he says, “tell me how your father uses that little talent of yours.”

I blink, confused.

“Really? He doesn't. What a shame.” The prince tilts his head to study me. “Tell me what you dream of, Jude Duarte, if that's your true name. Tell me what you want.”

My heart hammers in my chest, and I feel a little light-headed, a little dizzy. Surely it can't be this easy. Prince Dain, soon to be the High King of all Faerie, asking me what I want. I barely dare answer, and yet I must.

“I—I want to be your knight,” I stammer.

His eyebrows go up. “Unexpected,” he says. “And pleasing. What else?”

“I don't understand.” I twist my hands together so he can't see how they are shaking.

“Desire is an odd thing. As soon as it's sated, it transmutes. If we receive golden thread, we desire the golden needle. And so, Jude Duarte, I am asking you what you would want next if I made you part of my company.”

“To serve you,” I say, still confused. “To pledge my sword to the crown.”

He waves off my answer. “No, tell me what you
. Ask me for something. Something you've never asked from anyone.”

Make me no longer mortal
, I think, and then am horrified at myself. I don't want to want that, especially because there is no way to get it. I will never be one of the Folk.

I take a deep breath. If I could ask him for any boon, what would it be? I understand the danger, of course. Once I tell him, he is going to try to strike a bargain, and faerie bargains seldom favor the mortal. But the potential for power dangles before me.

My thoughts go to the necklace at my throat, the sting of my own palm against my cheek, the sound of Oak's laughter.

I think of Cardan:
See what we can do with a few words? We can enchant you to run around on all fours, barking like a dog. We can curse you to wither away for want of a song you'll never hear again or a kind word from my lips.

“To resist enchantment,” I say, trying to will myself to stillness. Trying not to fidget. I want to seem like a serious person who makes serious bargains.

He regards me steadily. “You already have True Sight, given to you as a child. Surely you understand our ways. You know the charms. Salt our food and you destroy any ensorcellment on it. Turn your stockings inside out and you will never find yourself led astray. Keep your pockets full of dried rowan berries and your mind won't be influenced.”

The last few days have shown me how woefully inadequate those protections are. “What happens when they turn out my pockets? What happens when they rip my stockings? What happens when they scatter my salt in the dirt?”

He regards me thoughtfully. “Come closer, child,” he says.

I hesitate. From all I have observed of Prince Dain, he has always seemed like a creature of honor. But what I have observed is painfully little.

“Come now, if you are going to serve me, you must trust me.” He is leaning forward in the chair. I notice the small horns just above his brow, parting his hair on either side of his regal face. I notice the strength in his arms and the signet ring gleaming on one long-fingered hand, carved with the symbol of the Greenbriar line.

I slide from the chair arm and walk over to where he sits. I force myself to speak. “I didn't mean to be disrespectful.”

He touches a bruise on my cheek, one I hadn't realized was there. I flinch, but I don't move away from him. “Cardan is a spoiled child. It is well-known in the Court that he squanders his lineage on drink and petty squabbles. No, don't bother to object.”

I don't. I wonder how it was that Gnarbone came to tell me only that a prince was waiting for me downstairs, but not which prince. I wonder if Dain told him to give me that specific message.
A well-seasoned strategist waits for the right opportunity.

“Although we are brothers, we are very different from each other. I will never be cruel to you for the sake of delighting in it. If you swear yourself into my service, you will find yourself rewarded. But what I want you for is not knighthood.”

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