Home > The Queen of Nothing (The Folk of the Air #3)(5)

The Queen of Nothing (The Folk of the Air #3)(5)
Author: Holly Black

She waits for me to go on.

“A challenge,” I say, thinking of everything I know about redcaps. “That’s what you crave, right? A good fight. I bet the Folk you killed weren’t all that special. A waste of your talents.”

“Who sent you?” she asks finally. Reevaluating. Trying to figure out my angle.

“What did you do to piss her off?” I ask. “Your queen? It must have been something big to get kicked out of the Court of Teeth.”

“Who sent you?” she roars. I guess I hit a nerve. My best skill.

I try not to smile, but I’ve missed the rush of power that comes with playing a game like this, of strategy and cunning. I hate to admit it, but I’ve missed risking my neck. There’s no room for regrets when you’re busy trying to win. Or at least not to die. “I told you. The local Folk who don’t want to get eaten.”

“Why you?” she asks. “Why would they send a slip of a girl to try to convince me of anything?”

Scanning the room, I take note of a round box on top of the refrigerator. An old-fashioned hatbox. My gaze snags on it. “Probably because it would be no loss to them if I failed.”

At that, Grima Mog laughs, taking another sip of the sour beer. “A fatalist. So how will you persuade me?”

I walk to the table and pick up the food, looking for an excuse to get close to that hatbox. “First, by putting away your groceries.”

Grima Mog looks amused. “I suppose an old lady like myself could use a young thing doing a few errands around the house. But be careful. You might find more than you bargained for in my larder, little goat.”

I open the door of the fridge. The remains of the Folk she’s killed greet me. She’s collected arms and heads, preserved somehow, baked and broiled and put away just like leftovers after a big holiday dinner. My stomach turns.

A wicked smile crawls across her face. “I assume you hoped to challenge me to a duel? Intended to brag about how you’d put up a good fight? Now you see what it means to lose to Grima Mog.”

I take a deep breath. Then with a hop, I knock the hatbox off the top of the fridge and into my arms.

“Don’t touch that!” she shouts, pushing to her feet as I rip off the lid.

And there it is: the cap. Lacquered with blood, layers and layers of it.

She’s halfway across the floor to me, teeth bared. I pull out a lighter from my pocket and flick the flame to life with my thumb. She halts abruptly at the sight of the fire.

“I know you’ve spent long, long years building the patina of this cap,” I say, willing my hand not to shake, willing the flame not to go out. “Probably there’s blood on here from your first kill, and your last. Without it, there will be no reminder of your past conquests, no trophies, nothing. Now I need you to make a deal with me. Vow that there will be no more murders. Not the Folk, not humans, for so long as you reside in the mortal world.”

“And if I don’t, you’ll burn my treasure?” Grima Mog finishes for me. “There’s no honor in that.”

“I guess I could offer to fight you,” I say. “But I’d probably lose. This way, I win.”

Grima Mog points the tip of her black cane toward me. “You’re Madoc’s human child, aren’t you? And our new High King’s seneschal in exile. Tossed out like me.”

I nod, discomfited at being recognized.

“What did you do?” she asks, a satisfied little smile on her face. “It must have been something big.”

“I was a fool,” I say, because I might as well admit it. “I gave up the bird in my hand for two in the bush.”

She gives a big, booming laugh. “Well, aren’t we a pair, redcap’s daughter? But murder is in my bones and blood. I don’t plan on giving up killing. If I am to be stuck in the mortal world, then I intend to have some fun.”

I bring the flame closer to the hat. The bottom of it begins to blacken, and a terrible stench fills the air.

“Stop!” she shouts, giving me a look of raw hatred. “Enough. Let me make you an offer, little goat. We spar. If you lose, my cap is returned to me, unburnt. I continue to hunt as I have. And you give me your littlest finger.”

“To eat?” I ask, taking the flame away from the hat.

“If I like,” she returns. “Or to wear like a brooch. What do you care what I do with it? The point is that it will be mine.”

“And why would I agree to that?”

“Because if you win, you will have your promise from me. And I will tell you something of significance regarding your High King.”

“I don’t want to know anything about him,” I snap, too fast and too angrily. I hadn’t been expecting her to invoke Cardan.

Her laugh this time is low and rumbling. “Little liar.”

We stare at each other for a long moment. Grima Mog’s gaze is amiable enough. She knows she has me. I am going to agree to her terms. I know it, too, although it’s ridiculous. She’s a legend. I don’t see how I can win.

But Cardan’s name pounds in my ears.

Does he have a new seneschal? Does he have a new lover? Is he going to Council meetings himself? Does he talk about me? Do he and Locke mock me together? Does Taryn laugh?

“We spar until first blood,” I say, shoving everything else out of my head. It’s a pleasure to have someone to focus my anger on. “I’m not giving you my finger,” I say. “You win, you get your cap. Period. And I walk out of here. The concession I am making is fighting you at all.”

“First blood is dull.” Grima Mog leans forward, her body alert. “Let’s agree to fight until one of us cries off. Let it end somewhere between bloodshed and crawling away to die on the way home.” She sighs, as if thinking a happy thought. “Give me a chance to break every bone in your scrawny body.”

“You’re betting on my pride.” I tuck her cap into one pocket and the lighter into the other.

She doesn’t deny it. “Did I bet right?”

First blood is dull. It’s all dancing around each other, looking for an opening. It’s not real fighting. When I answer her, the word rushes out of me. “Yes.”

“Good.” She lifts the tip of the cane toward the ceiling. “Let’s go to the roof.”

“Well, this is very civilized,” I say.

“You better have brought a weapon, because I’ll loan you nothing.” She heads toward the door with a heavy sigh, as though she really is the old woman she’s glamoured to be.

I follow her out of her apartment, down the dimly lit hall, and into the even darker stairway, my nerves firing. I hope I know what I’m doing. She goes up the steps two at a time, eager now, slamming open a metal door at the top. I hear the clatter of steel as she draws a thin sword out of her cane. A greedy smile pulls her lips too wide, showing off her sharp teeth.

I draw the long knife I have hidden in my boot. It doesn’t have the best reach, but I don’t have the ability to glamour things; I can’t very well ride my bike around with Nightfell on my back.

Still, right now, I really wish I’d figured out a way to do just that.

I step onto the asphalt roof of the building. The sun is starting to rise, tinting the sky pink and gold. A chill breeze blows through the air, bringing with it the scents of concrete and garbage, along with goldenrod from the nearby park.

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