Locke’s causing chaos again.
I don’t see any difference in his revels - if you’ve been to one party where the folk drink, dance, and overindulge themselves in every delight and cruelty they can think of, you’ve been to them all - but this one is clearly boring Cardan. And that means he’s annoying me. I ought to be happy about it, I suppose. Maybe if Locke bores him enough, Cardan will banish him to spice things up. Maybe then Taryn and I can go back to being friends.
And maybe Cardan will hand himself over to my control for another decade, just because he can’t stop thinking about what it felt like to kiss me. It’s about as likely, I tell myself, ruthless, twisting the knife a little more in my own ribs. I might as well wish for the moon while I’m at it.
As if my thoughts summoned him, Locke appears in front of us, goblets in hand, and I favor him with a sour smile.
“For my king,” he says, bowing low, sliding a crystal goblet before Cardan, its rim dusted with silver. “And his indispensable seneschal.” He holds eye contact with me even as mine narrow; as his smirk widens. My goblet is larger, crusted with jewels and dusted in gold, the ruby of the wine within brighter than the blood rushing to my face. He may as well have declared me the true ruler of Elfhame, Cardan a distant second, little more than an afterthought.
I turn to Cardan, my mouth already open, though I have no idea what I’m going to say. He just shrugs, his face giving away nothing, and picks up his wine. “Oh, good. Being sober was making this party even more dull, if such a thing is possible.”
Locke’s expression sparks with something animated, something malicious. “Have no fear, my king. I’m certain this party is about to get very amusing, indeed,” he says, and turns, clapping his hands together over his head. At the sound, all the lights in the great hall wink out as one; when they return, it’s in shades of red and pink, casting the room in a rich, ruddy glow. “To the King!” he cries, and across the crowd, drinks are raised and downed.
I take a reluctant sip of my own, my mouth smearing the gold dusted across its rim, wincing as it hits my tongue, too sweet, too bold and heady. Too reminiscent of the taste of Cardan’s mouth, of triumph and longing and the danger in the slide of his lips across mine. A throbbing drumbeat starts up, pounding through the hall, pulsing in time with my heart. Thoughts buzz around my head - my sister’s wedding, just days away, whatever the sea may be plotting to undermine the land, the ever-present threat of Madoc. The inescapable passage of time, my control over Cardan running out like water through my fingers, day by day. I shake myself, fingers toying with the stem of the goblet. I can’t afford to be distracted, not now; not by drink or by the king at my side.
“There are times when I truly hate him,” Cardan says, breaking into my thoughts. His goblet is already empty, dangling from his fingers, silver streaked across his face. I resist the absurd urge to wipe away the smear at the corner of his lips, to press my thumb to the edge of that lazy, mocking smile and see what he’d do.
“That’s hardly surprising,” I say instead. “You hate a lot of people, and Locke can be a real dick.”
“Ah, but you understand hate so well, Jude,” he says, turning to me, swinging one leg over the arm of his chair in his favorite insouciant pose. I try not to think of how well it suits him. “And I know you must hate him. All the times he’s made a fool of you. You know he’ll only make a fool of your sister in turn, don’t you? There’s not a mortal girl alive who could hold his attention for long.”
“Shut up,” I say. He’s right, but there’s nothing I can do about it, and it doesn’t help to hear it.
“Do you think she worries about it?” he continues, ignoring me. “Sweet Taryn, the good, gentle sister, wondering every time her lover touches her if he didn’t truly prefer her wild, sharp-tongued, dangerous twin. But then, maybe you like that thought. She did betray you, after all.”
“Here,” I interrupt, sliding my wine over to him, careful to avoid touching his fingers with mine. I don’t want it anyway. “Drink this, if it’ll shut you up.”
He keeps on going, as if I hadn’t even spoken. We’ve gotten too good at ignoring each other, he and I; too good at knowing the gaps in one another’s armor, the best places to prick and stab. “It doesn’t matter, of course. The Folk will always find mortals nothing more than a novelty, a passing fancy. The idea that one might fall in love with a mortal - ridiculous,” he says, flicking his fingers as if to brush away the very thought. “Absurd. Disturbing. Disgusting, one might even say.”
I turn on him like a wounded animal, the threads of my patience sliced clean through. “I command you to drink that,” I hiss, as quietly as possible, my voice threaded under the racing drums. “And to be silent until you’ve swallowed every drop.”
His eyes narrow, and I try to ignore the twist in my gut at his displeasure. It doesn’t matter that he’s only telling the truth. Of course we mortals are little more than disposable playthings to them, these creatures who will live forever, but the reminder still hurts. Especially from him.
Tipping it back, he glares at me, clearly intending to down it all in one long swallow - which I really should have seen coming - but stops after the first sip, a strange look crossing his face.
“Not to your taste? Too bad.” I'm tired of him, of the party, of the sharp drop I get sometimes in my stomach when I look at his face. How can I control a King, an entire realm, if I can’t even control my own body? Scanning the crowd, though it’s difficult to see anything in the low light, all I catch are flashes of writhing bodies, fluttering wings, heads tossed back in ecstasy. Maybe Locke wasn’t wrong about this party after all. “I didn’t care for it myself, but it’s exactly what you need. Drink up.” Secretly, I kind of hope he won’t, that he’ll be petty enough to leave me in silent, thwarted peace and I can get out of here.
Unfortunately, peace and Cardan have never been acquainted when it comes to me. He looks at me with loathing, but he tips his head back and swallows it all. I watch his mouth, pressed to the print of my lips in the gold dust; watch the arc of his neck, the way his throat works as he swallows, and glance away in haste. It takes me a moment to notice I’m staring right at a pair of faeries pressed up against the wall, coupling. They’re not what’s made the blood rush to my face.
“Dance with me,” Cardan says, released from my command, grabbing my hand before I can speak. His long fingers wrap around my wrist too tightly for me to pull away without causing a scene, hot against my skin. The dancing out on the floor doesn’t look like the kind I’m practiced at, and I have less than no desire to join it.
“I don’t think-” I begin, before he tugs me into him, my body colliding with the length of his, too solid and real for comfort.
“Yes, I prefer it when you don’t,” he says, mouth too close to my ear. “Somehow, bad things always seem to happen to me whenever you think.”
Despite the heat growing in the room, a shiver races through me, no matter how I try to suppress it. Somehow I’ve misstepped, and badly - he shouldn’t be drunk enough to be this bitter, to put himself this close to me in front of his entire court - but I have no idea what I’ve done. He might mislike being commanded, but not this much.
He pulls me from the dais with enough force that I lose my balance, stumbling against him, relying on him to keep me upright, on his arms around me like bars of iron. My hips come into contact with his, and I try to pull back, my heart pounding, only to be prevented as he catches me up against him. I wouldn’t have guessed he could be that strong. “Let go of me,” I manage to get out. I need to stop this, before one or both of us ends up looking like a fool. “Cardan, what-”
The brush of his lips against my neck stops me, words dying in my throat as he presses his mouth to my pulse. I know it’s fluttering wildly, know that he must be able to sense it, know that some part of him must be laughing at me, at my eager response to so little. Kiss me until I am sick of it. It’s only chance that makes him pull his head back as I turn mine. Only chance that keeps me from trying.
“I see you enjoyed your wine, Jude,” Locke says as he sweeps past us, my sister hanging off him like a limp rag doll, her head lolling against his neck. He reaches out, one fingertip swiping across my lower lip as I’d longed to do to Cardan, coming away stained gold. “I hope it brings you exactly the joy you deserve.” I try not to flinch as he sucks the gold from his finger, watching me with his fox eyes; try not to react as Taryn laughs, the sound of it dreamy, slurred. In the ruddy light, her pupils are enormous, unfocused, her smile wide and languid. Her hands are out of sight, tangled under Locke’s rumpled clothing, and I turn away, uneasy. I want to ask him what he’s done, demand to know what he means, but he wouldn’t tell me anyhow, and the tide of the crowd pulls us apart before I can say anything.
“If you value my dignity at all, get me out of here,” Cardan grinds out against my ear. His jaw is clenched when I look up at him, his eyes darkening as they follow Locke’s path through the room. I nod, biting back my questions, and guide us out of the crowd of groping hands.
It’s no better once we reach his rooms, once the doors close behind us and he breaks free of me, tugging his shirt open with such violence that the laces snap, the delicate lace at his collar ripped away.
“What is the matter with you?” I ask, wary, keeping my distance. There’s something about him I don’t like, something sharp and dangerous replacing his usual air of languor and dissipation.
He sneers, pacing back and forth. “As if you didn’t know. Nothing more than exactly what you intended to be wrong with me.”
I blink, trying to think my way through this. I don’t come up with much. “Right, look. I don’t know what you’re talking about, Cardan. Maybe if you used your words-”
I catch my breath when he swings towards me, the smile on his face twisted, mocking. It’s cruel, and my blood runs cold. I remember, as he stalks me, the tormentor he’d been to me once, before the vows and the crown and the bargain we struck; remember, as the sharp beauty of his face looms up before me, that the Folk are inhuman, feral. That they’re predators.
“Is this what you wanted, Jude?” He reaches for me, and I realize I’ve backed myself against the wall. His fingers seem hot enough to brand me when they meet my skin, but he’s gentle as he tips my chin up. “Have you dreamed of being touched this way?” I shake my head, my tongue frozen in my mouth, words lost to me. Along my throat, my nerves light up, his touch leaving a trail of fire in its wake, fingers vanishing under my high collar like magic. “Liar,” he breathes, leaning into me, sharp points of his teeth grazing the shell of my ear.
I barely have time to breathe before he kisses me, his mouth pressed to mine with a fierce urgency. My heart pounds in my ears, the blood rushing in my head, making me dizzy as he yanks at my laces. I don’t know what to do, what to think, what to feel; I don’t know anything other than I want more of what he’s doing, more of his hands laid hot against my collarbones, my shoulders, running down my arms.
“This is the worst idea you’ve ever had,” I manage to get out as he picks me up, letting my dress fall to the floor as he carries me across the room.
“Easily,” he says, tossing me down on his bed, none too gently. For a moment, fear rolls through me again, a frisson causing the hair on my arms to rise. What am I doing, lying on the High King’s bed in my underwear, letting him put his hands on me, letting him see every scrap of desire I’ve tried to keep hidden? “And yet, here we both are. You did this to me, Jude.” The smile he gives me is cold, all teeth. “Don’t pretend now that it isn’t exactly what you wanted.” His fingertip slides beneath the edge of my underwear, brought back from the human world, its cheap pink lace trim looking absurdly out of place stretched over his skin. “Or is it just another trick?” he asks, pausing, looking up at me, his eyes unfathomably dark. “If you only mean to humiliate me and leave me to suffer, you’d best do it now, while you still can.”
I can feel the tension in him in the way his other hand grips my hip, hard enough to bruise, sense it in the careful stillness he’s holding himself in, almost trembling as he stands over me.
I don’t want it to, but it sends a sick rush through me, desire bleeding into something darker. Like the triumph and fear I’d felt with a blade to his throat, all the more intense because now, I am the blade. All I have to do is admit I want him; admit what he could easily find out for himself if he moved his fingers just a little, the dripping proof of it gathering between my legs. I can understand, at least a little, why he thinks this is humiliating, even if I don’t understand much else of what he’s said.
I swallow past the tightness in my throat. “What did I do to you?”
“You made me want this. You made it impossible to stop wanting it.” For a moment, the look that flashes across his face is rage, before he shuts his eyes, closing me out. “Must you make me debase myself further? Is this not enough for you?”
I tear my gaze away from him, staring at the canopy over my head. Blood-red flowers bloom above me, their thick scent perfuming the air, rich and suffocating. I take a breath and blink hard. Fine, then. If he doesn’t want to want me and I don’t want to want him, at least we’re even; at least we know where we stand. It’s stupid to hope for anything different.
“As long as we understand what this is, then.” Sitting up, I look him in the eye while I unhook my bra and toss it aside, while I help him untangle himself from his clothing, his skin flushed, liquid smooth under my hands. Just sex, and nothing more, I tell myself. Maybe if I repeat it enough times, it’ll be true, like a magic spell.
Then he kneels before me, spreads my legs, and presses that beautiful mouth of his between them, and I know instantly that this will never be enough. “Let me,” he murmurs, when I bury my hands in the black of his curls, damp with sweat. His tongue flicks against me, and I wonder how I could have ever thought it cruel as I throw my head back. Wicked, maybe. Skilled, certainly. He clearly knows exactly what he’s doing, making me lose myself more and more. I’m lightheaded, intoxicated with the heat of his mouth, with the little vibrations as he laughs and hums at the noises he’s drawing out of me. Even when I press the back of one hand to my mouth, I can’t stop them escaping, not when he adds his long fingers to the mix, sliding one inside me, tormenting me from within and without until I break against him.
“You liked that,” he says, drawing himself up over me, capturing my hands in his, fingers threaded through mine. “Sweet, sharp Jude.”
I don’t know where to look, not when I can feel him hard against my thigh, the tip of his tail twitching against the back of my knee. I’m hit with the sudden conviction that this can’t be happening, can’t be real. I’ve dreamed of it too many times, dreamed and then woken up aching with thwarted desire and doused in shame. Woken up with the smell of him still fading from my mind, roses and earth and ash, just as it surrounds me now.
“Why are you doing this?” I ask, gripping his hands until the bones of my fingers hurt with it. The pain feels real. So does his cock, nudging against my cunt as he holds himself over me, pressing me down into the bed with his weight, his breath coming too fast.
“Because I need to,” he says, the look on his face somewhere between confusion and anger, his brows drawn together, his eyes so huge and dark and lost to desire that their gold rims are barely visible.
I’ve come too far to back out now, but a little bit of me dies at that anyway. The foolish, weak part of me that wants more than his rage, that doesn’t want him to get sick of me. The part that wants him to love me, not just be baffled by his need for my body.
It’s that part of me that wants to stab back. “Are you afraid of me, Cardan?”
He swallows, the black of his lashes fanning out, hiding his eyes from me. But he can’t lie. “Yes. Always.”
“Good,” I say, and push my hips up against him in what I hope is the right way, following what my body wants from me. It knows what to do much better than my mind does; much better than my heart.
He holds me down as he slides inside me, as my back arches under him at the brief moment of pain, his hands tight on my wrists, pinned beneath him through my flare of panic. It passes quickly, though. Then there’s only Cardan, above me, around me, inside me, everything about him hard and fever-hot, unreal. He kisses me, hungry and desperate, his mouth tasting of wine and something on the edge of memory.
“I hate you,” I whisper. I love you, my heart says, and I bite it back, burying it against his neck, my teeth breaking his skin in my desire to embed my secret inside him.
The sound he makes is the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard, and I follow him over the edge, tumbling into a bright oblivion.
I know there’s supposed to be something nice afterwards, some gentle moment that Vivi’s referred to as “afterglow” with waggling eyebrows. Whatever it is, we don’t get it. Cardan scrambles off me as though he’s been scalded, turning away, running his hands through his hair as though he’s trying to pull it out.
“That’s the problem with panax pollen,” he says to the wall, his voice bitter. “It wears off the moment you come. I don’t know why Locke persists in using it.”
“Panax?” I ask, but even as the word leaves my mouth, I know. I’ve tasted the edge of it dozens of times in my effort to become immune from poisons. Blended with rowan root, it causes an out-of-control heartbeat and a swift death. Left on its own, it’s merely the most powerful aphrodisiac I know of, filling even the Folk with an inescapable urge to rut. It’s the bold, heady flavor of my wine at the revel, the familiar taste in Cardan’s mouth.
“Oh, please,” he says, turning to me. I try not to shrink back against his pillows, though it’s an effort. Even standing there naked, hands on his hips, he’s terrifyingly regal, and incandescent with rage. “As if you didn’t know. Why else avoid drinking more than a sip of your wine? Why else force me to drink it instead?”
My mouth opens and closes, no sound coming out as I remember the revel, the glint in Locke’s eye as he set the gold-rimmed goblet before me. The malicious tilt of his smile as he rubbed the gold from my lips later, the evidence that I’d drank. He’d meant to humiliate me, to watch me throw myself at whoever was nearest, begging for satisfaction. And he’d meant for that to be Cardan, of course. Only I’d messed up his clever little plan, and humiliated Cardan far more than Locke would ever have dared.
“Jude,” Cardan says quietly. The menace in his voice makes me look up, all my muscles tense and ready to defend myself by reflex, it’s so strong. “Was that your first time?” He’s looking down at himself, I realize, sickened; at the smear of my blood along his cock. “I’d always thought that Locke-” He stops, shaking his head, his tail lashing back and forth. “Is that why you did this? You were tired of being a virgin, and I was a convenient target?”
I draw my knees up, pressing my legs together, belatedly aware of the uncomfortable sting between them. “What? No.” It comes out weak and unconvincing even to my ears, but as I open my mouth to say more, he cuts me off.
“Too afraid to ask for what you really wanted?” He throws a robe over his shoulders, heavy black velvet hanging off him like armor, looking more and more like a king by the moment, while I feel like the lowest worm. “I might have given it freely, you know. Once.”
Once. The word cuts through me like a knife, and I take a breath. “Cardan, I swear, I didn’t-”
“How pathetic. Do spare me, please. I suppose your pride wouldn’t let you command it of me directly.”
Bile rises in my throat at the thought, along with a flood of desperation, choking me. “I would never-”
“Enough,” he says, nothing soft about the curve of his mouth; nothing sweet left in him as he turns his back on me. It occurs to me that I’m still naked, and shame hits me too, a tide of negative emotions pulling me down, threatening to drown me. “Get out, and we can both pretend this never happened.”
“Cardan, please-” It hurts to beg, but if I leave it here, I don’t know how I can fix this. I don’t know if it can be fixed.
“Leave,” he snarls, turning on me, his eyes wild. “What will it take, Jude? For you to know I will never remember this night with anything but loathing at what I’ve done?”
For a moment, I can’t breathe, can’t think. He can’t lie. Everything I had hoped, every stupid, silly, hopeless thing I had ever dreamed of - gone, twisted into an evil, broken thing between us. Every secret I’d tried to keep from him, laid as bare as my body, a memory for him to look on with horror. And it’s all my fault.
“Get out,” he says again, his eyes closing, shutting out the sight of me.
I dress myself in silence, with stiff, fumbling fingers; walk out the door without looking back, my vision blurred; flee back to the sanctuary of my own rooms, the burning ache between my legs reminding me of what we did with every step.
Though I scrub myself, soaking in the bath until the water goes cold, Cardan’s scent clings to my skin; refuses to release me.
Maybe it never will.