Home > The Queen of Nothing (The Folk of the Air #3)(3)

The Queen of Nothing (The Folk of the Air #3)(3)
Author: Holly Black

“You rule if you care so much!” he says. “I won’t do it. Never.”

I have to grind my teeth together to keep from screaming. “I can’t, as you know, because I’m in exile,” I remind him.

He stamps a hoofed foot. “So am I! And the only reason I’m in the human world is because Dad wants the stupid crown and you want it and everyone wants it. Well, I don’t. It’s cursed.”

“All power is cursed,” I say. “The most terrible among us will do anything to get it, and those who’d wield power best don’t want it thrust upon them. But that doesn’t mean they can avoid their responsibilities forever.”

“You can’t make me be High King,” he says, and wheeling away from me, breaks into a run in the direction of the apartment building.

I sit down on the cold ground, knowing that I screwed up the conversation completely. Knowing that Madoc trained Taryn and me better than I am training Oak. Knowing that I was arrogant and foolish to think I could control Cardan.

Knowing that in the great game of princes and queens, I have been swept off the board.

 

Inside the apartment, Oak’s door is shut firmly against me. Vivienne, my faerie sister, stands at the kitchen counter, grinning into her phone.

When she notices me, she grabs my hands and spins me around and around until I’m dizzy.

“Heather loves me again,” she says, wild laughter in her voice.

Heather was Vivi’s human girlfriend. She’d put up with Vivi’s evasions about her past. She even put up with Oak’s coming to live with them in this apartment. But when she found out that Vivi wasn’t human and that Vivi had used magic on her, she dumped her and moved out. I hate to say this, because I want my sister to be happy—and Heather did make her happy—but it was a richly deserved dumping.

I pull away to blink at her in confusion. “What?”

Vivi waves her phone at me. “She texted me. She wants to come back. Everything is going to be like it was before.”

Leaves don’t grow back onto a vine, cracked walnuts don’t fit back into their shells, and girlfriends who’ve been enchanted don’t just wake up and decide to let things slide with their terrifying exes.

“Let me see that,” I say, reaching for Vivi’s phone. She allows me to take it.

I scroll back through the texts, most of them coming from Vivi and full of apologies, ill-considered promises, and increasingly desperate pleas. On Heather’s end, there was a lot of silence and a few messages that read “I need more time to think.”

Then this:

I want to forget Faerie. I want to forget that you and Oak aren’t human. I don’t want to feel like this anymore. If I asked you to make me forget, would you?

 

I stare at the words for a long moment, drawing in a breath.

I can see why Vivi has read the message the way she has, but I think she’s read it wrong. If I’d written that, the last thing I would want was for Vivi to agree. I’d want her to help me see that even if Vivi and Oak weren’t human, they still loved me. I would want Vivi to insist that pretending away Faerie wouldn’t help. I would want Vivi to tell me that she’d made a mistake and that she’d never ever make that mistake again, no matter what.

If I’d sent that text, it would be a test.

I hand the phone back to Vivi. “What are you going to tell her?”

“That I’ll do whatever she wants,” my sister says, an extravagant vow for a mortal and a downright terrifying vow from someone who would be bound to that promise.

“Maybe she doesn’t know what she wants,” I say. I am disloyal no matter what I do. Vivi is my sister, but Heather is human. I owe them both something.

And right now, Vivi isn’t interested in supposing anything but that all will be well. She gives me a big, relaxed smile and picks up an apple from the fruit bowl, tossing it in the air. “What’s wrong with Oak? He stomped in here and slammed his door. Is he going to be this dramatic when he’s a teenager?”

“He doesn’t want to be High King,” I tell her.

“Oh. That.” Vivi glances toward his bedroom. “I thought it was something important.”

 

 

Tonight, it’s a relief to head to work.

Faeries in the mortal world have a different set of needs than those in Elfhame. The solitary fey, surviving at the edges of Faerie, do not concern themselves with revels and courtly machinations.

And it turns out they have plenty of odd jobs for someone like me, a mortal who knows their ways and isn’t worried about getting into the occasional fight. I met Bryern a week after I left Elfhame. He turned up outside the apartment complex, a black-furred, goat-headed, and goat-hooved faerie with bowler hat in hand, saying he was an old friend of the Roach.

“I understand you’re in a unique position,” he said, looking at me with those strange golden goat eyes, their black pupils a horizontal rectangle. “Presumed dead, is that correct? No Social Security number. No mortal schooling.”

“And looking for work,” I told him, figuring out where this was going. “Off the books.”

“You cannot get any further off the books than with me,” he assured me, placing one clawed hand over his heart. “Allow me to introduce myself. Bryern. A phooka, if you hadn’t already guessed.”

He didn’t ask for oaths of loyalty or any promises whatsoever. I could work as much as I wanted, and the pay was commensurate with my daring.

Tonight, I meet him by the water. I glide up on the secondhand bike I acquired. The back tire deflates quickly, but I got it cheap. It works pretty well to get me around. Bryern is dressed with typical fussiness: His hat has a band decorated with a few brightly colored duck feathers, and he’s paired that with a tweed jacket. As I come closer, he withdraws a watch from one pocket and peers at it with an exaggerated frown.

“Oh, am I late?” I ask. “Sorry. I’m used to telling time by the slant of moonlight.”

He gives me an annoyed look. “Just because you’ve lived in the High Court, you need not put on airs. You’re no one special now.”

I am the High Queen of Elfhame. The thought comes to me unbidden, and I bite the inside of my cheek to keep myself from saying those ridiculous words. He’s right: I am no one special now.

“What’s the job?” I ask instead, as blandly as I can.

“One of the Folk in Old Port has been eating locals. I have a contract for someone willing to extract a promise from her to cease.”

I find it hard to believe that he cares what happens to humans—or cares enough to pay for me to do something about it. “Local mortals?”

He shakes his head. “No. No. Us Folk.” Then he seems to remember to whom he’s speaking and looks a little flustered. I try not to take his slip as a compliment.

Killing and eating the Folk? Nothing about that signals an easy job. “Who’s hiring?”

He gives a nervous laugh. “No one who wants their name associated with the deed. But they’re willing to remunerate you for making it happen.”

One of the reasons Bryern likes hiring me is that I can get close to the Folk. They don’t expect a mortal to be the one to pickpocket them or to stick a knife in their side. They don’t expect a mortal to be unaffected by glamour or to know their customs or to see through their terrible bargains.

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