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Authors: Holly Black

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BOOK: The Cruel Prince
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T
hey don't wait long to retaliate.

For the rest of the afternoon and early evening, we receive lessons in history. A cat-headed goblin named Yarrow recites ballads and asks us questions. The more correct answers I give, the angrier Cardan grows. He makes no secret of his displeasure, drawling to Locke about how boring these lessons are and sneering at the lecturer.

For once, we're done before dark has fully fallen. Taryn and I start for home, with her giving me concerned glances. The light of sunset filters through the trees, and I take a deep breath, drinking in the scent of pine needles. I feel a kind of weird calm, despite the stupidity of what I've done.

“This isn't like you,” Taryn says finally. “You don't pick fights with people.”

“Appeasing them won't help.” I toe a stone with a slipper-covered foot. “The more they get away with, the more they believe they're entitled to have.”

“So you're going to, what—teach them manners?” Taryn sighs. “Even if someone should do it, that someone doesn't have to be you.”

She's right. I know she's right. The giddy fury of this afternoon will fade, and I will regret what I've done. Probably after a good, long sleep, I'll be as horrified as Taryn is. All I have bought myself is worse problems, no matter how good it felt to salve my pride.

You're no killer.

What you lack is nothing to do with experience.

And yet, I don't regret it now. Having stepped off the edge, what I want to do is fall.

I begin to speak when a hand claps down over my mouth. Fingers sink into the skin around my lips. I strike out, swinging my body around, and see Locke grabbing Taryn's waist. Someone has my wrists. I wrench my mouth free and scream, but screams in Faerie are like birdsong, too common to attract much attention.

They push us through the woods, laughing. I hear a whoop from one of the boys. I think I hear Locke say something about larks being over quickly, but it's swallowed up in the merriment.

Then a shove at my shoulders and the horrible shock of cold water closing over me. I sputter, trying to breathe. I taste mud and reeds. I shove myself up. Taryn and I are waist-high in the river, the current pushing us downstream toward a deeper, rougher part. I dig my feet into the muck at the bottom to keep from being swept away. Taryn is gripping a boulder, her hair wet. She must have slipped.

“There are nixies in this river,” Valerian says. “If you don't get out before they find you, they'll pull you under and hold you there. Their sharp teeth will sink into your skin.” He mimes taking a bite.

They're all along the riverbank, Cardan closest, Valerian beside him. Locke brushes his hand over the tops of cattails and bulrushes, looking abstracted. He does not seem kind now. He seems bored with his friends and with us, too.

“Nixies can't help what they are,” Nicasia says, kicking the water so that it splashes my face. “Just like you won't be able to help drowning.”

I dig my feet deeper into the mud. The water filling my boots makes it hard to move my legs, but the mud locks them in place when I manage to stand still. I don't know how I am going to get to Taryn without slipping.

Valerian is emptying our schoolbags onto the riverbank. He and Nicasia and Locke take turns hurling the contents into the water. My leather-bound notebooks. Rolls of paper that disintegrate as they sink. The books of ballads and histories make an enormous splash, then lodge between two stones and will not budge. My fine pen and nibs shimmer along the bottom. My inkpot shatters on the rocks, turning the river vermilion.

Cardan watches me. Although he doesn't lift a finger, I know this is all his doing. In his eyes, I see all the vast alienness of Faerie.

“Is this fun?” I call to the shore. I am so furious that there's no room for being scared. “Are you enjoying yourselves?”

“Enormously,” says Cardan. Then his gaze slides from me to where shadows rest under the water. Are those nixies? I cannot tell. I just keep moving toward Taryn.

“This is just a game,” Nicasia says. “But sometimes we play too hard with our toys. And then they break.”

“It's not like we drowned you ourselves,” Valerian calls.

My foot slips on slick rocks, and I am under, swept downstream helplessly, gulping muddy water. I panic, snorting into my lungs. I thrust out a hand, and it closes on the root of a tree. I get my balance again, gasping and coughing.

Nicasia and Valerian are laughing. Locke's expression is unreadable. Cardan has one foot in the reeds, as though to get a better look. Furious and sputtering, I push my way back to Taryn, who comes forward to grab my hand and squeeze it hard.

“I thought you were going to drown,” she says, the edge of hysteria in her voice.

“We're fine,” I tell her. Digging my feet into the murk, I reach down for a rock. I find a large one and heft it up, green and slick with algae. “If the nixies come at us, I'll hold them off.”

“Quit,” Cardan says. He's looking directly at me. He does not even spare a glance for Taryn. “You should never have been tutored with us. Abandon thoughts of the tourney. Tell Madoc you don't belong with us, your betters. Do that and I'll save you.”

I stare at him.

“All you have to do is give in,” he says. “Easy.”

I look over at my sister. It's my fault she's wet and scared. The river is cold, despite the heat of summer, the current strong. “And you'll save Taryn, too?”

“Oh, so you'll do what I say for her sake?” Cardan's gaze is hungry, devouring. “Does that feel noble?” He pauses, and in that silence, all I hear is Taryn's hitched breath. “Well, does it?”

I look at the nixies, watch them for any sign of movement. “Why don't you tell me how you want me to feel?”

“Interesting.” He takes another step closer, squatting and regarding us from eye level. “There are so few children in Faerie that I've never seen one of us twinned. Is it like being doubled or more like being divided in half?”

I don't answer.

Behind him, I see Nicasia thread her arm through Locke's and whisper something to him. He gives her a scathing look, and she pouts. Maybe they're annoyed that we're not currently being eaten.

Cardan frowns. “Twin sister,” he says, turning to Taryn. A smile returns to his mouth, as though a terrible new idea has come to delight him. “Would you make a similar sacrifice? Let's find out. I have a most generous offer for you. Climb up the bank and kiss me on both my cheeks. Once that's done, so long as you don't defend your sister by word or deed, I won't hold you accountable for her defiance. Now, isn't that a good bargain? But you get it only if you come to us now and leave her there to drown. Show her that she will always be alone.”

For a moment, Taryn stands still, as if frozen.

“Go,” I say. “I'll be fine.”

It still hurts when she wades toward the bank. But of course she should go. She will be safe, and the price is nothing that matters.

One of the pale shapes detaches from the others and swims toward her, but my shadow in the water makes it hesitate. I mime throwing the rock, and it jolts a little. They like easy prey.

Valerian takes Taryn's hand and helps her out of the water as if she were a great lady. Her dress is soaked, dripping as she moves, like the dresses of water sprites or sea nymphs. She presses her bluish lips to Cardan's cheeks, one and then the other. She keeps her eyes closed, but his are open, watching me.

“Say ‘I forsake my sister Jude,'” Nicasia tells her. “‘I won't help her. I don't even like her.'”

Taryn looks in my direction, quick and apologetic. “I don't have to say that. That wasn't part of the bargain.” The others laugh.

Cardan's boot parts the thistles and bulrushes. Locke starts to speak, but Cardan cuts him off. “Your sister abandoned you. See what we can do with a few words? And everything can get so much worse. 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. We're not mortal. We will break you. You're a fragile little thing; we'd hardly need to try. Give up.”

“Never,” I say.

He smiles, smug. “Never? Never is like forever—too big for mortals to comprehend.”

The shape in the water remains where it is, probably because the presence of Cardan and the others makes it seem like I have friends who might defend me if I were attacked. I wait for Cardan's next move, watching him carefully. I hope I look defiant. He scrutinizes me for a long, awful moment.

“Think on us,” he says to me. “All through your long, sodden, shameful walk home. Think on your answer. This is the least of what we can do.” With that, he turns away from us, and after a moment, the others turn, too. I watch him go. I watch them all go.

When they're out of sight, I pull myself onto the bank, flopping onto my back in the mud next to where Taryn is standing. I take big, gulping breaths of air. The nixies begin to surface, looking at us with hungry, opalescent eyes. They peer at us through a patch of foxtails. One begins to crawl onto land.

I throw my rock. It doesn't come close to hitting, but the splash startles them into not coming closer.

Grunting, I force myself up to begin walking. And all through our walk home, while Taryn makes soft, sobbing sounds, I think about how much I hate them and how much I hate myself. And then I don't think about anything but lifting my wet boots, one step after another carrying me past the briars and fiddleheads and elms, past bushes of red-lipped cherries, barberries and damsons, past the wood sprites who nest in the rosebushes, home to a bath and a bed in a world that isn't mine and might never be.

M
y head is pounding when Vivienne shakes me awake. She jumps up onto the bed, kicking off the coverlets and making the frame groan. I press a cushion over my face and curl up on my side, trying to ignore her and go back to dreamless slumber.

“Get up, sleepyhead,” she says, pulling back my blankets. “We're going to the mall.”

I make a strangled noise and wave her away.

“Up!” she commands, leaping again.

“No,” I moan, burrowing deeper in what's left of the blankets. “I've got to rehearse for the tournament.”

Vivi stops bouncing, and I realize that it's no longer true. I don't have to fight. Except that I foolishly told Cardan I would never quit.

Which makes me remember the river and the nixies and Taryn.

How she was right, and I was magnificently, extravagantly wrong.

“I'll buy you coffee when we get there, coffee with chocolate and whipped cream.” Vivi is relentless. “Come on. Taryn's waiting.”

I half-stumble out of bed. Standing, I scratch my hip and glare. She gives me her most charming smile, and I find my annoyance fading, despite myself. Vivi is often selfish, but she's so cheerful about it and so encouraging of cheerful selfishness in others that it's easy to have fun with her.

I dress quickly in the modern clothes I keep in the very back of my wardrobe—jeans, an old gray sweater with a black star on it, and a pair of glittery silver Converse high-tops. I pull my hair into a slouchy knitted hat, and when I catch a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror (carved so that it seems like a pair of bawdy fauns are on either side of the glass, leering), a different person is looking back at me.

Maybe the person I might have been if I'd been raised human.

Whoever that is.

When we were little, we used to talk about getting back to the human world all the time. Vivi kept saying that if she learned just a little more magic, we'd be able to go. We were going to find an abandoned mansion, and she was going to enchant birds to take care of us. They would buy us pizza and candy, and we would go to school only if we felt like it.

By the time Vivi learned how to travel there, though, reality had intruded on our plans. It turns out birds can't really buy pizza, even if they're enchanted.

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.

Angry.

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.

BOOK: The Cruel Prince
8.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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