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The Prisoner’s Throne: Chapter 24

Wren collapses, her skin bruised and pale, her hair plastered across her face. Her eyes closed. The stillness of her is too profound for sleep.

Oak cannot seem to do anything but look at her. He cannot move. He cannot think.

Bex kneels beside Wren, pressing on her chest, counting under her breath. “Come on,” she mutters between compressions.

Bogdana leans down to place her overlong fingers on Wren’s cheek. Without her power, she looks old. Even her long nails look brittle. “Get away from her, human girl.”

“I’m trying to save my sister,” Bex snaps.

Jude stands behind the mortal. “Is she breathing?”

You destroyed her,” Oak snarls at Bogdana, holding his sword pommel so hard that he feels the edge of the hilt dig into his hand. “You had a chance to undo what you did, to save your only daughter. No one tricked you this time. You did the very thing you knew would kill her.”

“She betrayed me,” Bogdana says, but there is a hitch in her voice.

“You cared nothing for her,” Oak shouts. “You terrorized her so that she would come into a power that you could use. You let those monsters in the Court of Teeth hurt her. And now she’s dead.”

The hag narrows her eyes. “And you, boy? Are you so much better? You’re the one who brought her here. What would you do to save her?”

“Anything!” he shouts.

“No!” Jude says, nearly as quickly, putting her body between his and the storm hag’s. “No, he would not.” She takes Oak by the shoulders and shakes him. “You can’t just keep throwing yourself at things as though you don’t matter.”

“She matters more,” he says.

“It’s possible that Wren can be woken,” says Bogdana.

“Deceive me in this, and I will bury you, so do I vow,” Oak says.

“Her heart is stopped,” says Bogdana. “But hag children don’t need beating hearts. Just magical ones.”

Oak recalls the Ghost giving him a warning when they were aboard the ship. It is said that a hag’s power comes from the part of them that’s missing. Each one has a cold stone or wisp of cloud or ever-burning flame where their hearts ought to be.

He’d dismissed it as a piece of superstition. Even Faerie found hags and their powers troubling enough to make up legends about them. And the Ghost had clearly been worried over Oak’s plan to marry one.

The prince lowers himself back to the ground. He kneels in the wet sand on the other side of where Bex is working. She scowls at him as she counts. He puts his hand on Wren’s chest. Desperately hoping the storm hag is right. But he feels not a single thrum of a pulse nor the movement of breath in her lungs. What he does feel is magic. There’s a deep well of it, curled up inside her body.

Pulling back his hand, he doesn’t know what to think.

Mother Marrow told him that Wren’s magic was turned inside out. A power meant to be used for creation, warped until all it could do was destroy, annihilate, and unmake. Twisted on itself, a snake eating its own tail. But perhaps taking apart the storm and being struck twice by lightning was more than even her magic could devour. Maybe some of it spilled over.

Though she set all her matches alight and burned up with them, maybe something new could emerge from the ashes.

How many girls like Wren can there be, made from sticks and imbued with a cursed heart? She’s made of magic, more than any of them.

“What will wake her?” he demands.

“That I do not know,” Bogdana says, not meeting his eyes.

Jude raises both brows. “Helpful.”

Oak remembers the story Oriana told him long ago about his mother. Once upon a time, there was a woman who was so beautiful that none could resist her. When she spoke, it seemed that the hearts of those who listened beat for her alone.

But how could he persuade someone who might not even be able to hear him?

“Wren,” Oak says, letting the burr come into his voice. “Open your eyes. Please.”

Nothing happens. Oak tries again, letting loose the full force of his honey-tongued charm. The nearby Folk watch him with a new, strange intensity. The air seems to ripple with power. Bex sucks in a breath, leaning toward him.

“Come back to me,” he says.

But Wren is silent and still.

Oak lets go of his power, cursing himself. He glances up helplessly at Jude, who looks back at him and shakes her head. “I’m sorry.” It is a very human thing for her to say.

He lets his head fall forward until his forehead is touching Wren’s.

Gathering her in his arms, he studies the hollowness of her cheeks and the thinness of her skin. Presses a finger to the edge of her mouth.

Oak thought his magic was just finding what people wanted to hear and saying it in the way they wanted, but since he’s let himself really use the power, he discovered that he can use it to find truth. And for once, he needs to tell her the truth. “I thought love was a fascination, or a desire to be around someone, or wanting to make them happy. I believed it just happened, like a slap to the face, and left the way the sting from such a blow fades. That’s why it was easy for me to believe it could be false or manipulated or influenced by magic.

“Until I met you, I didn’t understand to feel loved, one has to feel known. And that, outside of my family, I had never really loved because I hadn’t bothered to know the other person. But I know you. And you have to come back to me, Wren, because no one gets us but us. You know why you’re not a monster, but I might be. I know why throwing me in your dungeon meant there was still something between us. We are messes and we are messed up and I don’t want to go through this world without the one person I can’t hide from and who can’t hide from me.

“Come back,” he says again, tears burning the back of his throat. “You want and you want and you want, remember? Well, wake up and take what you want.”

He presses his mouth against her forehead.

And startles when he hears her draw in a breath. Her eyes open, and for a moment, she stares up at him.

“Wren?” Bex says, and smacks Oak on the shoulder. “What did you do?” Then she pulls the prince into her arms and hugs him hard.

Jude is staring, hand to her mouth.

Bogdana stays back, glowering, perhaps hoping that no one noticed she rent her garments with her nails as she watched and waited.

“I’m cold,” Wren whispers, and alarm rings through him like the sounding of a bell. She could walk barefoot through the snow and not have it hurt her. He never heard her complain of even the most frigid temperatures.

Oak stands, lifting Wren in his arms. She feels too light, but he is reassured by her breath ghosting across his skin, the rise and fall of her chest.

He still cannot, however, hear the beat of her heart.

With the storm stopped, it seems that all of Elfhame has forded the distance between Insear and Insmire. There are boats aplenty, and soldiers. Grima Mog’s second-in-command is barking orders.

Bex scavenges a blanket from one of the tents, and Oak manages to bundle Wren in it. Then he carries her to a boat and commandeers it to take him back across so he can bring her to the palace. The journey is a blur of panic, of frantic questions, plodding steps. Finally, he carries her into his rooms. By then, her body is shivering, and he tries not to let terror leak into his voice as he speaks to her softly, explaining where they are and how she will be safe.

He puts Wren in his bed, then pushes it close by the fire and piles blankets on top of her. It seems to make no difference to her shuddering.

Herbalists and bonesetters come and go. Like a banshee, one of them says. Like a sluagh, says another. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before, says a third.

Wren’s skin has become dry and oddly dull. Even her hair looks faded. It seems as though she is sinking so deeply into herself that he cannot follow.

Oak sits with her throughout that night and all through the next day, refusing to budge as people come in and out. Oriana tries to prize him from Wren’s side to eat something, but he won’t leave.

Bex comes and goes. That afternoon, she sits for a while, holding her sister’s hand and crying as though she were already gone.

Tiernan brings them both hard cheese, fennel tea, and some bread. He also brings news of Bogdana, who is being held in the prisons of Hollow Hall, soon to be moved into the Tower of Forgetting.

Bex makes up a bed for herself on the floor out of scavenged cushions. Oak gives her one of his robes, all of gold and spider silk, to wear.

As night comes on, Wren seems like a husk of herself. When he touches her arm, it feels papery under his fingers. A wasp’s nest instead of flesh. He draws his hand back and tries to convince himself of something other than the worst.

“She’s not getting better, is she?” the mortal girl says.

“I don’t know,” Oak says, the words hard to get out, so close to being a lie.

Bex frowns. “I think I met your, uh, father. He was telling me about the Court of Teeth.”

Well, he should know all about that place, Oak thinks but doesn’t say.

“I guess I can see why Wren thought she couldn’t come back to my family, and it wasn’t because—I don’t know, not because she didn’t want to see us.”

“She was willing to do a lot for your sake,” Oak says, thinking of all the ways Wren must have struggled to free them from Bogdana’s trap, how despair must have closed in around her when she realized she was going to have to choose between an agonizing death for her sister and the deaths of many others.

“I just wish—” Bex says. “I wish I’d talked to her when I first saw her sneaking into the house. I wish I’d followed her. I wish I’d done more, done something.”

Over the past few days, Oak has been making a comprehensive and damning list of all the better choices he could have made. He’s wondering whether he ought to admit them out loud when Bex screams.

He rockets to his feet, not sure what she’s seeing.

And then he does. Inside of the husk of Wren, something is moving. Shifting beneath her skin.

“What is that?” Bex says, scuttling back until she hits the wall.

Oak shakes his head. The dullness of Wren’s skin suddenly makes him think of the shed casings that spiders leave behind. He reaches out an unsteady hand—

Wren moves again, and this time, the papery flesh tears. Skin emerges, vibrant blue. Her body cracks open like a chrysalis.

Bex makes an alarmed sound from the floor.

From within, a new Wren emerges. Her skin the same cerulean blue, her eyes the same soft green. Even her teeth are the same, sharp as ever when she parts her lips to take a breath of air. But on her back are two feathered wings, light blue gray at the tips, with darker feathers closer to her body, and when they unfurl, they are large enough to canopy him, Bex, and Wren.

She stands, naked and reborn, looking around the room with the sharp gaze of a goddess, deciding whom to bless and whom to smite.

Her eyes settle on the prince.

“You have wings,” he says, awestruck and foolish. He sounds as though he took a hard blow to the head. That isn’t far from how he feels.

Astonished joy has robbed him of all cleverness.

“Wren?” Bex whispers.

Wren’s attention swings to her, and he can see the mortal girl flinch a little under the weight of it.

“You don’t have to be afraid,” Wren says, although she looks positively terrifying right then. Even Oak is a little frightened of her.

Bex draws in a breath and pushes herself off the floor. Picking up a fallen blanket, she hands it to her sister, then gives Oak a pointed look. “You should probably stop staring at her like you never saw a naked girl with wings before.”

Oak blinks and turns away, shamefaced. “Right,” he says, heading for the door. “I’ll leave you both.”

He looks back once, but all he sees are feathers.

In the hall, a guard comes immediately to attention.

“Your Highness,” he says. “Tiernan went to rest a few hours ago. Shall I send for him?”

“No need,” says Oak. “Let him be.”

The prince moves through the palace like a stunned sleepwalker, desperately happy that Wren is alive. So happy that when he finds Madoc in the game room, he can’t contain his smile.

His father stands from behind a chess table. “You look pleased. Does that mean—”

Time—never particularly well calculated by the Folk—has blurred at the edges. He’s not sure how long he’s been in that room. “Awake. Alive.”

“Come sit,” Madoc says. “You can finish Val Moren’s game.”

Oak slips into the chair and frowns at the table. “What happened?”

In front of Madoc are several captured pawns, a bishop, and a knight. On Oak’s side, only a single pawn.

“He wandered off when he realized he was going to lose,” says the redcap.

Oak blinks at the game, too exhausted to have any move in mind, no less a good move.

“Your mother isn’t particularly happy with me right now,” Madoc says. “Your sisters, either.”

“Because of me?” It was perhaps inevitable, but he felt guilty to hasten it along.

Madoc shakes his head. “Maybe they’re right.”

That’s alarming. “Everything okay, Dad?”

Unlike Oriana, Madoc smiles at his use of the human term. Dad. Perhaps he likes it better because when Jude and Taryn used it, it meant they cared about him in a way he might not have thought they ever would.

“That mortal girl being around made me think.”

It has to be strange for him to be back in Elfhame, and yet no longer the grand general. To be back in his old house, without his kids there. And to be away from Insear when the rest of them were in danger. “About my sisters?”

“About their mother,” Madoc says.

Oak is surprised. Madoc doesn’t usually speak of his mortal wife, Eva. Possibly because he murdered her.


“It’s not easy for mortals to live in this place. It’s not easy for us to live in their world, either, but it’s easier. I shouldn’t have left her so much alone. I shouldn’t have forgotten that she could lie, or that she thought of her life as brief, and would risk much for happiness.”

Oak nods, sensing there’s more, and advances his pawn out of the range of being taken by another.

“And I shouldn’t have told myself that cultivating a killing instinct I couldn’t control had no chance of bringing me tragedy. I shouldn’t have been so eager to teach the same to you.”

Oak thinks of the fear he’d felt when his father struck him to the ground all those years ago, of the hard kernel of shame he carried at that terror and his own softness, at how his sisters and mother protected him. “No,” Oak says. “Probably not.”

Madoc grins. “And yet, there are few things I would change. For without all my mistakes, I would not have the family I do.” He moves his queen, sweeping across the board to rest in a place that doesn’t seem imminently threatening.

Since Madoc would almost certainly have the crown if not for one of Eva’s mortal daughters, that was quite an admission.

Oak moves his knight to take one of his father’s undefended bishops. “I’m glad you’re home. Try not to get banished again.”

Madoc shifts his castle. “Checkmate,” he says with a grin, leaning back in his chair.

On his way back to his rooms, Oak stops at Tiernan’s. He taps lightly enough that if Tiernan is really asleep, the sound won’t rouse him.

“Yes?” comes a voice. Hyacinthe.

Oak opens the door.

Tiernan and Hyacinthe are in bed together. Tiernan’s hair is rumpled, and Hyacinthe is looking quite pleased with himself.

Oak smirks and comes to sit at the foot. “This won’t take long.”

Hyacinthe shifts so he’s leaning against the headboard. His chest is bare. Tiernan shifts up, too, keeping a blanket over himself.

“Tiernan, I am formally dismissing you from my service,” Oak says.

“Why? What did I do?” Tiernan leans forward, not worrying about the blanket anymore.

“Protected me,” Oak says with great sincerity. “Including from myself. For many years.”

Hyacinthe’s looks outraged. “Is this because of me?”

“Not entirely,” says Oak.

“That’s not fair,” Hyacinthe says. “I fought back-to-back with you. I got you out of Mother Marrow’s. I practically got you out of the Citadel. I even let you persuade me to be half-drowned by Jack of the Lakes. You can’t still think I would betray you.”

“I don’t,” Oak says.

Tiernan frowns in confusion. “Why are you sending me away?”

“Guarding a member of the royal family isn’t a position one is supposed to quit,” Oak says. “But you should. I have been throwing myself at things and not caring what happens. I didn’t see how destructive it was until Wren did it.”

“You need someone—”

“I did need you when I was a child,” Oak says. “Although I wouldn’t admit it. You kept me safe, and trying not to put you in danger made me a little more cautious—although not nearly cautious enough—but more, you were my friend. Now both of us need to make decisions about our future, and those might not follow the same paths.”

Tiernan takes a deep breath, letting those words sink in.

Hyacinthe gapes a little. Of all the things he has resented Oak for, what he seemed to feel most keenly was the fear that Tiernan was being taken from him. The idea that Oak might not actually want that clearly never occurred to him.

“I hope you’ll always be my friend, but we can’t really be friends if you’re obliged to throw away your life for my bad decisions.”

“I’ll always be your friend,” Tiernan says staunchly.

“Good,” Oak says, standing up. “And now I will get out of here so Hyacinthe doesn’t have a new reason to be angry with me and you can both—eventually—sleep.”

The prince heads for the door. One of them throws a pillow at his back on his way out.

At the door to his rooms, Oak knocks. When neither Wren nor Bex answers, he goes in.

It takes him a few turns through the sitting area, the bedroom, and the library to realize she’s not there. He calls her name and then, feeling foolish, sits on the edge of the bed.

A sheet of paper rests on his pillow, one ripped out of an old school notebook. On it in an unsteady hand is a letter addressed to him.


I have always been your opposite, shy and wild where you are all courtly charm. And yet you are the one who pulled me out of my forest and forced me to stop denying all the parts of me I tried to hide.

Including the part of me that wanted you.

I could tell you how easy it was to believe that I was monstrous in your eyes and that the only thing I could have of you was what I took. But that hardly matters. I knew it was wrong, and I did it anyway. I exchanged the certainty of possession for what I most wanted—your friendship and your love.

I am going with Bex to visit my family and then return to the north. If I can no longer only take things apart, then it’s time to learn how to create. It would be cruel to hold you to a promise made in duress, a marriage proposal given to prevent bloodshed. And crueler still to make you bid me a polite farewell, when I have already taken so much from you.


The prince crumples the paper in his hands. Didn’t he make her an entire speech about how she taught him about love? About knowing and being known. After that, how could she—

Oh, right. He made that speech while she was unconscious.

He slumps down in a chair.

When Jude sends for him, he has spent the better part of the afternoon staring out a window miserably. Still, she’s the High Queen and also his sister, so he makes himself somewhat presentable and goes to the royal chambers.

Cardan is lying on the bed, bandaged and sulking, in a magnificent dressing gown. “I hate being unwell,” he says.

“You’re not sick,” Jude tells him. “You are recovering from being stabbed—or rather, throwing yourself on a knife.”

“You would have done the same for me,” he says airily.

“I would not,” Jude snaps.

“Liar,” Cardan says fondly.

Jude takes a deep breath and turns to Oak. “If you really want, you have our formal permission, as your sovereigns, to abdicate your position as our heir.”

Oak raises his brows, waiting for the caveat. He’s been telling her he didn’t want the throne for as long as he can remember having a reason to say the words. For years, she acted as though he’d eventually come around. “Why?”

“You’re a grown person. A man, even if I’d like to think of you as forever a boy. You’ve got to determine your own fate. Make your own choices. And I have to let you.”

“Thank you,” he forces out. It’s not a polite thing to say among the Folk, but Jude ought to hear it. Those words absolve him of no debt.

He’s let her down and possibly made her proud of him, too. His family cares about him in ways that are far too complex and layered for it to come from enchantment, and that is a profound relief.

“For listening to you? Don’t worry. I won’t make it a habit.” Walking to him, she puts her arms around him, bumping her chin against his chest. “You’re so annoyingly tall. I used to be able to carry you on my shoulders.”

“I could carry you,” Oak offers.

“You used to kick me with your hooves,” she tells him. “I wouldn’t mind a chance for revenge.”

“I bet.” He laughs. “Is Taryn still angry?”

“She’s sad,” Jude says. “And feels guilty. Like this is the universe punishing her for what she did to Locke.”

If that were true, so many of them deserved greater punishment.

“I didn’t want—I don’t think I wanted Garrett dead.”

“He isn’t dead,” Jude says matter-of-factly. “He’s a tree.”

He supposes it must be some comfort, to be able to visit and speak with him, even if he can’t speak in return. And perhaps someday the enchantment could be broken when the danger was past. Perhaps even the hope of that was something.

“And you had every reason to be mad. We did keep secrets from you,” Jude goes on. “Bad ones. Small ones. I should have told you what the Ghost had done. I should have told you when Madoc was captured. And—you should have told me some things, too.”

“A lot of things,” Oak agrees.

“We’ll do better,” Jude says, knocking her shoulder into his arm.

“We’ll do better,” he agrees.

“Speaking of which, I would speak with Oak for a moment,” Cardan says. “Alone.”

Jude looks surprised but then shrugs. “I’ll be outside, yelling at people.”

“Try not to enjoy it too greatly,” says Cardan as she goes out.

For a moment, they are silent. Cardan pushes himself up off the bed. Messy black curls fall over his eyes, and he ties the belt of his deep blue dressing gown more tightly.

“I am sure she doesn’t want you getting up,” Oak says, but he offers his arm. Cardan is, after all, the High King.

And if he slipped, Jude would like that even less.

Cardan leans heavily on the prince. He points toward one of the low brocade couches. “Help me get over there.”

They move slowly. Cardan winces under his breath and occasionally gives an exaggerated groan. When he finally makes it, he lounges against one of the corners, propped up with pillows. “Pour me a goblet of wine, won’t you?”

Oak rolls his eyes.

Cardan leans forward. “Or I could get it myself.”

Outmaneuvered, Oak holds his hands up in surrender. He goes to a silver tray that holds cut crystal carafes and chooses one half-full of plum-dark liquor. He pours it into a goblet and passes that over.

“I think you know what this is about,” Cardan says, taking a long slug.

Oak sits. “Lady Elaine? Randalin? The conspiracy? I can explain.”

Cardan waves his words away. “You have done enough and more than enough explaining. I think it is my turn to speak.”

“Your Majesty,” Oak acknowledges.

Cardan meets his gaze. “For someone who cannot outright lie, you twist the truth so far that I am surprised it doesn’t cry out in agony.”

Oak doesn’t even bother denying that.

“Which makes perfect sense, given your father . . . and your sister. But you’ve even managed to deceive her. Which she doesn’t like admitting—doesn’t like, period, really.”

Again, Oak says nothing.

“When did you start, with the conspiracies?”

“I don’t want—” Oak begins.

“The throne?” Cardan finishes for him. “Obviously not. Nor have you waffled on that point. And if your sisters and your parents imagined you’d change your mind, that’s for their own mad reasons. It’s the only thing on which you have remained steadfast for more than a handful of years. And, I will have you know, I thought the same thing when I was a prince.”

Oak can’t help recalling the part he had in taking that choice away from Cardan.

“No, I don’t suspect you of wanting to be High King,” Cardan says, and then smiles a wicked, little smile. “Nor did I believe you wanted me dead for some other reason. I never thought that.”

Oak opens his mouth and closes it. Isn’t that what this is about? Wasn’t that what Cardan believed? He overheard the High King tell Jude as much, back in their rooms in the palace, before he left to try to save Madoc. “I am not sure I understand.”

“When your first bodyguard tried to kill you, I ought to have asked more questions. Certainly after one or two of your lovers died. But I thought what everyone else thought—that you were too trusting and easily manipulated as a result. That you chose your friends poorly and your lovers even more poorly. But you chose both carefully and well, didn’t you?”

Oak gets up and pours himself a glass of wine. He suspects he is going to need it. “I overheard you,” he says. “In your rooms, with Jude. I overheard you talking about Madoc.”

“Yes,” Cardan says. “Belatedly, that became obvious.”

If I didn’t know better, I might think this is your brother’s fault. Oak tries to remember the exact words the High King chose. He’s more like you than you want to see. “You didn’t trust me.”

“Having spent a great deal of time playing the fool myself,” Cardan says, “I recognized your game. Not at first, but long before Jude. She didn’t want to believe me, and I am never going to tire of crowing about being right.”

“So you didn’t think I was really allied with Randalin?”

Cardan smiles. “No,” he says. “But I wasn’t certain which of your allies were actually on your side. And I was rather hoping you’d let us lock you up and protect you.”

“You could have given me some sort of hint!” Oak says.

Cardan raises a single brow.

Oak shakes his head. “Yes, well, fine. I could have done the same. And fine, you were losing blood.”

Cardan makes a gesture as though tossing off Oak’s words. “I have little experience of dispensing brotherly wisdom, but I know a great deal about mistakes. And about hiding behind a mask.” He salutes with his wineglass. “Some might say that I still do, but they would be wrong. To those I love, I am myself. Too much myself sometimes.”

Oak laughs. “Jude wouldn’t say that.”

Cardan takes a deep swallow of plum-dark wine, looking pleased with himself. “She would, but she’d be lying. But, most important”—he raises a single finger—“I knew what you were up to before she did.” Then a second. “And if you decide you want to risk your life, perhaps you could also risk a little personal discomfort and let your family in on your plans.”

Oak lets out a long sigh. “I will take that under advisement.”

“Please do,” says Cardan. “And there is one more thing.”

Oak takes an even bigger slug of his wine.

“You may recall that Jude gave you permission to abdicate? Well, that’s all well and good, but you can’t do it immediately. We’ll need several months more of your being our heir.”

“Months?” Oak echoes, completely puzzled.

The High King shrugs. “More or less. Maybe a little longer. Just to make the Court feel as though there’s some kind of backup plan if something happens while we’re away.”

“Away?” After so many surprises, Oak seems unable to do more than repeat the things Cardan tells him. “You want me to stay the heir while you two go off somewhere? And then I can step down, be de-princed, whatever?”

“Exactly that,” says Cardan.

“Like on a vacation?”

Cardan snorts.

“I don’t understand,” Oak says. “Where are you going?”

“A diplomatic mission,” says Cardan, leaning back on the cushions. “After that last little rescue, Nicasia has demanded we honor our treaty, meet her suitors, and witness the contest for her hand and crown. And so Jude and I are headed to the Undersea, where we will go to a lot of parties and try very hard not to die.”


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