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The High King calls himself her puppet.

If that’s true, then why does it feel as though he is holding the strings?

It leaves a bitter taste in Jude’s mouth. His insolence, his mockery, his ridicule—every flicker and flavor of his scorn burns her insides as though it is poison. But unlike mithridatism, there is no immunity she can hope to gain.

Or is there?

At first, the idea horrifies her. To acknowledge her shameful desire is one thing, to indulge it is another. But like all horrific ideas, the allure to carry them out gleams like the edge of a dagger. If Cardan is a toxin, he should only be imbibed one drop at a time. A single kiss. A single touch. Even then, as with all the other poisons she’s ingested, she worries about...the cravings. The cravings are the worst part of it.

She can’t believe she’s thinking about this.

“Your mind appears to be elsewhere, my dear seneschal.” His sneering plucks her out of her reverie. “Tell me, what preoccupies you?”

She glares at him as much as she can without drawing too much attention from the courtiers that reel beneath the raised dais.

Tonight, Cardan is adorned in a splendor of red: Upon him is a scarlet jacket embroidered with twisting black thorns, a wine-colored waistcoat as rich as the contents of his goblet, and a single rose with fangs that is pinned obscenely above his heart. Even a circlet of ripe berries is woven throughout the filagree of his crown, completing an insidious portrait. In short, he looks every inch the villainous king. His entire being is a warning, one she cannot seem to heed.

It pisses her off.

“It is I that commands you to tell me things,” says Jude, dodging his question. “Not the other way around.”

His lips twitch into a condescending grin. In the past, such an expression never ceased to make her feel inconsequential. Now, however, Jude is plagued by the memory of their softness, their urgency as they devoured her. She feels her cheeks grow hot and she wishes, not for the thousandth time, that she could glamor her blushes away.

“Your pardon,” he says, head bowing so that his crown slides askew. “Let me ask it of you then: what preoccupies you?”

You, she wants to say.

There it is. The ugly truth. The fall before the plunge. The terrible thrill that courses through her veins, making her muddled and murderous all at once. She tries to gain her composure by attempting to knock him off balance, if only to wipe away that awful, awful sneer.

“I was thinking about your lips,” she says, trying to mimic the silkiness of his voice. It’s a poor likeness, she knows. But there’s some comfort in parroting his haughty airs, not unlike lifting an opponent’s weapon and using it against them.

He stills and those night-dark eyes grow as cold as the gaps between the stars. There’s a part of her that regrets it, but there’s also a larger part of her—bolder and more stupid—that wants to see what he will do. This is a challenge, one that she will not back down from, especially when it concerns him.

“What about my lips?” he asks. It irks her that his face is unreadable. Gone is the sneer, but she doesn’t feel satisfied. Not even a little.

“I was thinking about the last time we kissed,” she says, willing her words to be steady. “How tender your mouth was. How clever your tongue. How I craved you like nothing else, not even faerie wine. I remember all this and am repulsed, especially because you yourself were so disgusted by it. But like you, I can’t stop. And I hate it with all my heart.”

Her little speech is silvery until the end. Anger makes all her sentences run together, undermining all her bravado. Yet Jude applauds herself for it. It has taken all of Madoc’s training for her face to remain as neutral as though reporting the weather. To anyone looking their way, that may have well been the case. Fortunately, no one spares them a glance, being far too distracted by their own dramas and cruelties.

Cardan’s black eyes bore into her and though trying to weigh the truth of her words. It’s ironic, she thinks, that what shakes him the most aren’t her lies, but her honesty.

Perhaps she should be honest more often, just to shut him up.

And he does shut up. In fact, he leans back on his throne with a bored affectation and doesn’t say another word until the revel is over. Only Jude can tell that he is rattled. There is a tick in his jaw that tells her that he is grinding his teeth.

She should feel victorious. She does feel victorious. But beneath all that, there is dread.

Dawn approaches and the revel comes to an end. Cardan rises from his throne and with a disinterested wave of his hand bids the courtiers farewell.

There are a few titters of complaint here and there, but everyone sloughs off regardless. A new king has been crowned after all, and it will do no good to defy him.

Jude knows that better than anyone. As the throne room empties, she knows she won’t leave it unscathed. He draws near and she tenses, every nerve spurring her to turn away. Then he leans down to whisper in her ear, “It seems you and I have the same affliction. I ask you: Come into my chambers tonight and we shall settle things.”

He says it like a dare, and like a coward, drifts away with his retinue of guards. This time, Jude is the one who is shaken.

It is in her best interest to leave their little skirmish at that. Nothing good will happen if she decides to go to his chambers. But even as she thinks this, she finds herself walking in their direction anyway.

Idiot. She is such an idiot.


 

The guards say nothing when Jude appears. She makes some excuse that she has important business to discuss—as his seneschal, not as some secret paramour. Though she knows that these guards wouldn’t care. She thinks of Val Moren and his mad love for Eldred and shudders.

Cardan waits for her in the parlor outside his bedroom. This is good, Jude thinks. It’s neutral territory. He’s clothed in a nightshirt and breeches, his crown put away. It should make him more vulnerable, but to Jude’s disappointment, his arrogance isn’t diminished.

“What do you want from me?” Jude asks.

There. She struck first.

Cardan bears down on her, standing at his full height as he traps her in between his arms and the wall behind her. His tail lashes behind him, agitated, though his face betrays nothing. No matter. The important thing is that Jude keeps her spine straight. Madoc’s ways are ingrained in her blood. She will never back down.

“Tell me what to do,” he says.

Jude does not expect that.

“I want you to tell me what to do,” he says, but strained, as if he were swallowing knives.

Understanding dawns on her. Understanding, as well as fear. You and I have the same affliction, he said. And here he is, begging her to command him so that they can both be rid of their obscene yearning for one another.

“But you hate me,” she says.

“What does it matter what I hate?” he says in return, and this time his voice drops low as he bends to brush the rounded shell of her ear with his tongue. That sinful tongue that most definitely does not make her shiver. “What does it matter what you hate?”

Her heartbeat races and hot on the heels of panic is anger. Anger and...temptation. Is this the sign of becoming a monster? Like them? Cold and ruthless and utterly indifferent to the consequences of their own brutal appetites?

“What if I want you on your knees?” she asks, closing her eyes as he nips at her earlobe.

To her astonishment, he kneels before her and that condescending grin comes back into play. Only this time she sees a flash of something else. A spark. A kindling. Something that electrifies the air between them. Then she realizes, with a start, that she is grinning back and rather than feeling nauseated, she feels…

She’d rather not say what she feels.

“Here I am, my lady.”

My lady. Not my seneschal.

He kisses her hands, reverently. Like a supplicant. The same hands that held a blade to this throat. He kisses every callous, every knuckle, even the finger that’s missing the tip. He lavishes his attention on that one in particular, makes a low hum as he does so. Jude does not know what to make of it. But the sight of him...there...before her, and maybe beneath her…

He looks at her from beneath those absurdly thick lashes. He’s still mouthing at her as though she is a delicacy when he asks, “What now, Jude?”

Leave. She should leave. End this silly game before it ruins them both.

But aren’t they already ruined?

“Get on the bed,” she says and despises the way she whimpers.

In a blur of shed clothes and clumsy kisses, clumsy because of her inexperience, they somehow make it into the soft sheets of Cardan’s four poster. Adrenaline surges throughout Jude’s body as she feels his hands everywhere. On her thighs. Under her breasts. She is far, far too hot. Feverish. Everything about this is horribly embarrassing and the only thing keeping her from falling into the abyss is the fact that Cardan is just as undone, just as overwhelmed.

“Did you mean what you said?”

“What?” She gasps as she feels his tail curl around her knee, the little black tuft of hair tickling her.

“That you crave me more than faerie wine?”

She groans as he switches his attention to her neck. They pant and writhe and marvel at their nakedness. Or rather, Jude marvels at it. She has never been naked with another before. It is insane that the High King is the first to have the privilege. She almost wants to laugh. Look at where her ambitions have led her…

Instinctively she buries her fingers into Cardan’s hair, as ruffled as raven’s feathers and just as dark. “I do crave you more than faerie wine,” she says as he licks the salt from her skin and makes her ache. “Sometimes it’s more than I can bear. But I also loathe you and loathing you is its own addiction.”

She feels him grow hard against her stomach and it’s thrilling. Thrilling because she can exert her own power over him in a way that doesn’t have anything to do with his vows.

“How far?” he asks, and he takes one of her nipples into his mouth, suckles her until she feels slick between her legs. “How far are you willing to fall?”

Pretty far, Jude thinks. As long as she takes him down with her.

Cardan keeps drinking her in, lapping her up in a drunk and greedy way as if her flesh is made of nevermore. It’s an assault on both their senses.  And suddenly he’s between her legs, which have spread out on their own accord. Her hands claw at his back, nails digging into his scars. She feels weak and wanton. At the mercy of her own ecstasy. Cardan knows it. Smells it, probably.

“How far?” he asks again, and this time he claims her lips and slides those wicked fingers into her. She clenches, stretches, yields. The noises she makes will be her biggest regrets later, but they only spur him on, making him twitch against her. His focus on her pleasure is avid, eager. She knows that he'll be thinking of this later; will probably abhor himself as he does so. And the thought of it makes her come. Blindingly. It obliterates everything. Her resolve. Her discipline. And for the first time in her life, she just doesn’t care.

“Gods,” he says. Or curses.

He pulls her over him. For a moment, she is stricken. There is so much surrender in this position, of her over him, and doesn’t want to think about what it means. Then she glances at his cock, how red and rigid it is, how it glistens. She wonders if his arousal is painful. It seems so. Especially since Cardan looks like he is about to jump out of his skin. His eyes are wild. Hunted. As though she has chased him over hill and dale and finally, finally, has caught up with her prey.

A wet rush courses through her, and somehow she is able to find her voice. “Show me what to do.”

He obeys. But isn’t that interesting? None of the commands she issued tonight had been explicit. None of them had been decreed by the magic that binds them together. If anything, they were requests phrased as statements. Which means Cardan could have refused them at any time. He didn’t, though.

“Here,” he gasps, lifting her up. “Like this.”

The first thrust is strange, unfamiliar, but not painful. Not like the ballads claimed it would be. She keeps her eyes open as she takes him in, every inch until he arches beneath her. A moan tears from his throat, long and loud. Incredibly loud. It sounds like relief, but it also sounds like agony. She thinks about coaxing other noises from him.

It doesn’t take long for her to understand the mechanics. Her body seems to know what to do, which is just as well because Cardan is twisting and ripping at the coverlets as if he were in the throes of madness. And it is madness, this live and living thing between them. He cries out when she pushes onto his length. Up and down. Up and down. Her hips circling and undulating like waves. He seems to like that best and clutches at her like a life preserver.

She keeps moving. Slowly at first and then building and cresting until she joins him in the frenzy. This crazed scrabbling for that glorious peak, that divine edge. She could almost see it, taste it. White hot and wonderful. This time when she comes, she really does take him down with her. She feels him pulse as he comes; it is a shockingly beautiful sight. How Cardan coils beneath her and releases, exposing his throat. Without thinking, she sinks her teeth in it and he clings to her. Clings to her so hard that she's sure he'll leave bruises.

He clings to her for the rest of the night, holding her as if she will run away or as if someone will come along and snatch her right out of his arms. She thinks about Locke and Balekin and how much he has lost and here, just the once, she burrows into his embrace.

“This will be the last time,” she says. “I mean it.”

He murmurs into her hair and, impossibly, pulls her closer.

As they drift off to sleep, they both know it’s a lie.