We have updated our Privacy Policy Please take a moment to review it. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the terms of our updated Privacy Policy.

The Prisoner’s Throne Chapter 2

Those of you subscribed to the NOVL newsletter got to see this one early, but for everyone else, here is a little gift from the Queen of Faerie herself, Holly Black! That’s right, chapter two of The Prisoner’s Throne is here!

Chapter 2

Oak takes the stairs, careful now. He has the surreal feeling of being in a video game. He played enough of them, sitting on Vivi’s couch. Creeping through pixelated rooms that had more of the appearance of Madoc’s stronghold where he grew up than anywhere they went in the mortal world. Leaning on Heather’s shoulder, controller in his hands. Killing people. Hiding the bodies.

This is a stupid, ugly, violent game, Vivi said. Life isn’t like that. And Jude, who was visiting, raised her eyebrows and said nothing.

He recalls following Wren through these icy halls. Killing people. Hiding the bodies.

There are more visitors to the Citadel now than there were then; ironically, that makes it easier to be overlooked. There are so many new faces, neighboring Folk arriving to discover the nature of the new lady and curry her favor. Well-​dressed nisse and hulduf.lk courtiers gather in knots, passing gossip. Trolls size one another up, and a few selkieshang around at the edges, no doubt gathering news of a rising power to take back to the Undersea.

Oak cannot blend in, not in his worn and filthy clothes, not with the straps of Grimsen’s bridle tight to his cheeks. He sticks to the shadows, putting up the hood of the cloak and moving with slow deliberation.

After growing up with servants in his father’s stronghold in Faerie and then without any when he was in the mortal world, the prince is very aware of what it takes to keep a castle like this one running. As a small child, he was used to his dirty clothing disappearing from his floor and returning to his armoire, cleaned and hung. But after he and Vivi and Heather had to carry bags of laundry to the basement of their apartment building and feed quarters into a machine, along with detergent and fabric softener, he realized that someone must have been performing a related service for him in Faerie.

And someone is performing that service here in the Citadel, washing linens and uniforms. Oak heads in the direction of the kitchens, figuring the flames of the ovens are likely the same ones used to heat the tubs of water necessary to clean fabric. Real fire would be easier to keep confined to the stone basements and first floor of the Citadel.

Oak keeps his head down, although the servants barely spare him a glance. They rush through the halls. He’s sure the household is vastly understaffed.

It takes him a tense twenty minutes of creeping about before a change in the humidity of the air and the scent of soap reveal the laundry area. He pushes open the door to the room gingerly and is relieved to find no servant currently doing the wash. Three steaming vats rest on the black rock floor. Dirty bedding, tablecloths, and uniforms soak inside them. Clean linens hang from ropes strung overhead.

Oak pulls off his own filthy garments, dropping them into the water before stepping in, too.

He feels a bit foolish as he wades into a vat, naked. Should he be discovered, he will doubtless have to play the silly, carefree prince, so vain that he escaped his prison for a bath. It would be a crowning achievement of embarrassment.

The soapy water is merely warm, but it feels deliciously hot after being so chilled for so long. He shudders with the pleasure of it, the muscles in his limbs relaxing. He dunks himself, submerging his head and scrubbing at his skin with his fingernails until he feels clean. He wants to stay there, to float in water as it grows ever more tepid. For a moment, he allows himself to do just that. To stare at the ceiling of the room, which is black stone, too, although above this level, the walls, floors, and ceilings are all of ice.

And Wren, somewhere inside them. If he could just speak to her, even for a moment . . .

Oak knows it’s ridiculous, and yet he can’t help feeling as though they have an understanding of each other, one that transcends this admittedly not-​great moment. She will be angry when he talks with her, of course. He deserves her anger.

He has to tell her that he regrets what he did. He’s not sure what happens after that.

Nor is he sure what it means about him that he finds hope in the fact that Wren has kept him. Fine, not everyone would see being thrown into a dungeon as a romantic gesture, but he’s choosing to at least consider the possibility that she put him there because she wants something more from him.

Something beyond, say, skinning him and leaving his rotting corpse for ravens to pick over.

On that thought, he splashes his way out of the tub.

Among the drying uniforms, he finds one that seems as though it will fit him—certainly fit better than the bloodstained one he used to get into the palace weeks ago. It’s damp, but not so much as to draw notice, and only slightly too tight across his chest. Still, dressed this way and with the hood of the cloak pulled forward to hide his face, he might be able to walk straight out the door of the Citadel, as though he were going on patrol.

It would serve her right for never coming to see him, not even to use the bridle and command him to stay put.

He’s not sure how far he could get in the snow, but he still has three of the stones from the snake. He might be able to bribe someone to take him in their carriage. And even if he didn’t want to risk that, he might well find his own horse in the stables, since Hyacinthe was the one who stole Damsel Fly and Hyacinthe is now Wren’s second-in-command.

Either way, he’d be free. Free to not need rescuing. Free to attempt to talk his sister out of whatever homicidal plan she might foment against the Citadel. Free to return home and go back to performing fecklessness, back to sharing the bed of anyone he thought might be planning a political coup, back to being an heir who never wants to inherit.

And never seeing Wren again.

Of course, he might not make it to Jude in time for her to know he was free, to stop whatever plans she set in motion. Whatever murders her people would commit in his name. And then, of course, there would be the question of what Wren did in retaliation.

Not that he knows how to stop either of them if he remains here. He’s not sure anyone knows how to stop Jude. And Wren has the power of annihilation. She can break curses and tear spells to pieces with barely any effort. She took apart Lady Nore as though she were a stick creature and spread her insides over the snow.

Really, that memory alone should send the prince out of the Citadel as quickly as his legs could carry him.

He pulls the hood of the cloak down over his face and heads toward the Great Hall. Getting a glimpse of her feels more like a compulsion than a decision.

He can feel the gaze of courtiers drift toward him— covering one’s face in a hood is unusual, at the very least. He keeps his own eyes unfocused and his shoulders back, though his every instinct screams to meet their looks. But he is dressed like a soldier, and a soldier would not turn.

It is harder to pass falcons and to know they might spot his hooves and wonder. But he is hardly the only one to have hooves in Faerie. And everyone who knows that the Prince of Elfhame is in the Citadel believes him to be locked up tight.

Which doesn’t make him any less of a fool for coming into the throne room. When everything goes wrong, he will have no one to blame but himself.

Then he sees Wren, and longing shoots through him like a kick to the gut. He forgets about risk. Forgets about schemes.

Somewhere in the crowd, a musician plucks at a lute. Oak barely hears it.

The Queen of the Ice Citadel sits upon her throne, wearing a severe black dress that shows her bare pale blue shoulders. Her hair is a tumble of azure, some strands pulled back, a few pieces braided through with black branches. On her head is a crown of ice.

In the Court of Moths, Wren flinched away from the gazes of courtiers as she entered the revel on his arm, as though their very notice stung. She curled her body so that, small as she was, she appeared even smaller.

Now her shoulders are back. Her demeanor is that of someone who does not consider anyone in this room— not even Bogdana— a threat. He flashes on a memory of her younger self. A little girl with a crown sewn to her skin, her wrists leashed by chains that threaded between bones and flesh. No fear in her face. That child was terrifying, but no matter how she seemed, she was also terrified.

“The delegation of hags has come,” snaps Bogdana. “Give me the remains of Mab’s bones and restore my power so that I can lead them again.”

The storm hag stands before the throne, in the place of the petitioner, although nothing about her suggests submission. She wears a long black shroud, tattered in places. Her fingers move expressively as she speaks, sweeping through the air like knives.

Behind her are two Folk. An old woman with the talons of some bird of prey instead of feet (or hooves) and a man shrouded in a cloak. Only his hand is visible, and that is covered in what seems to be a scaled, golden glove. Or perhaps his hand itself is scaled and golden.

Oak blinks. He knows the woman with the feet like a bird of prey. That’s Mother Marrow, who operates out of Mandrake Market on the isle of Insmire. Mother Marrow, whom the prince went to at the very start of his quest, asking for guidance. She sent him to the Thistlewitch for answers about Mellith’s heart. He tries to recall now, all these weeks later, whether she’d said anything that might have put him in Bogdana’s path.

            Knots of courtiers are scattered around the room, gossiping, making it hard to hear Wren’s soft reply. Oak steps closer, his arm brushing against a nisse. She makes an expression of annoyance, and he shifts away.

“Have I not suffered long enough?” asks Bogdana.

“You would speak to me of suffering?” Nothing in Wren’s expression is soft or yielding or shy. She is every bit the pitiless winter queen.

Bogdana frowns, perhaps a little unnerved. Oak feels somewhat unnerved himself. “Once I have them, my might will be restored— me, who was once first among hags. That’s what I gave up to secure your future.”

“Not my future.” There is a hollowness to Wren’s cheeks, Oak notices. She’s thinner than she was, and her eyes shine with a feverish brightness.

Has she been ill? Is this because of the wound in her side when she was struck by an arrow?

“Do you not have Mellith’s heart?” demands the storm hag. “Are you not her, reborn into the world through my magic?”

Wren does not reply immediately, letting the moment stretch out. Oak wonders if Bogdana has ever realized that the trade she made must have ruined her daughter’s life, long before it led to her horrible death. From the Thistlewitch’s tale, Mellith must have been miserable as Mab’s heir. And since Wren has at least some of Mellith’s memories in addition to her own, she has plenty of reasons to hate the storm hag.

Bogdana is playing a dangerous game.

“I have her heart, yes,” says Wren slowly. “Along with part of a curse. But I am not a child, no less your child. Do not think you can so easily manipulate me.”

The storm hag snorts. “You are a child still.”

A muscle jumps in Wren’s jaw. “I am your queen.”

Bogdana does not contradict her this time. “You have need of my strength. And you have need of my companions if you hope to continue as you are.”

Oak stiffens at those words, wondering at their meaning.

Wren stands, and courtiers turn their attention to her, their conversations growing hushed. Despite her youth and her small stature, she has vast power.

And yet, Oak notices that she sways a little before gripping the arm of her throne. Forcing herself upright.

Something is very wrong.

Bogdana made this request in front of a crowd rather than in private and named herself as Wren’s maker. Called Wren a child. Threatened her sovereignty. Brought in two of her hag friends. These were desperate, aggressive moves. Wren must have been putting her off for some time. But also, the storm hag may have thought she was attacking in a moment of weakness.

First among the hags. He doesn’t like the thought of Bogdana being more powerful than she already is.

“Queen Suren,” says Mother Marrow, stepping forward with a bow. “I have traveled a long way to meet you— and to give you this.” She opens her palm. A white walnut sits at the center of it.

Wren hesitates, no longer quite as remote as she seemed a moment before. Oak recalls the surprise and delight in her face when he bought her a mere hair ornament. She hasn’t been given many presents since she was stolen from her mortal home. Mother Marrow was clever to bring her something.

“What does it do?” A smile twitches at the corners of Wren’s mouth, despite everything.

Mother Marrow’s smile goes a little crooked. “I have heard you’ve been traveling much of late and spending time in forest and fen. Crack the nut and say my little poem, and a cottage will appear. Bring the two halves together again with another verse, and it will return to its shell. Shall I demonstrate?”

“I think we need not conjure a whole building in the throne room,” Wren says.

A few courtiers titter.

Mother Marrow does not seem discomfited in the least. She walks to Wren and deposits the white walnut in her hand. “Remember these words, then. To conjure it, say: We are weary and wish to rest our bones. Broken shell, bring me a cottage of stones.”

The nut in Wren’s hand gives a little jump at the words but then isquiescent once more.

Mother Marrow continues speaking. “And to send it away: As halves are made whole and these words resound, back into the walnut shell shall my cottage be bound.”

“It is a kind gift. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Wren’s hands curl around it possessively, belying the lightness of her tone. He thinks of the shelter she made from willow branches back in her woods and imagines how well she would have liked to have something solid and safe to sleep in. A well-considered gift, indeed.

The man steps forward. “Though I do not like to be outdone, I have nothing so fine to give you. But Bogdana summoned me here to see if I can undo what—”

“That is enough,” Wren says, her voice as harsh as Oak has ever heard it.

He frowns, wishing she’d have let the man finish. But it was interesting that for all the damning things she allowed Bogdana to say, whatever he wanted to undo was the one thing she didn’t want her Court to hear.

“Child,” Bogdana cautions her. “If my mistakes can be unmade, then let me unmake them.”

“You spoke of power,” Wren snaps. “And yet you suppose I will let you strip me of mine.”

Bogdana begins to speak again, but as Wren descends from the throne, guards gather around her. She heads toward the double doors of the Great Hall, leaving the storm hag behind.

Wren sweeps past Oak without a look.

The prince follows her into the hall. Watches the guards accompany her to her tower and begin to ascend.

He follows, staying to the back, blending in with a knot of soldiers.

When they are almost to her rooms, he lets himself fall behind farther. Then he opens a random door and steps inside.

For a moment, he braces for a scream, but the room is— thankfully— empty. Clothing hangs in an open armoire. Pins and ribbons are scattered across a low table. One of the courtiers must be staying here, and Oak is very lucky not to be caught.

Of course, the longer he waits, the luckier he will have to be.

Still, he can hardly barge into Wren’s rooms now. The guards would not have left yet. And there would certainly be servants— even with so few in the castle— attending her.

Oak paces back and forth, willing himself to be calm. His heart is racing. He is thinking of the Wren he saw, a Wren as distant as the coldest, farthest star in the sky. He cannot even focus on the room itself, which he should almost certainly hunt through to find a weapon or mask or something useful.

But instead he counts the minutes until he believes he can safely— well, as safely as possible, given the inherent danger of this impulsive plan— go to Wren’s rooms. He finds no guard waiting in the hall—unsurprising, given the narrowness of the tower, but excellent. No voices come from inside.

What is surprising is that when he turns the knob, the door opens.

He steps into her rooms, expecting Wren’s anger. But only silence greets him.

A low couch sits along one wall, a tray with a teapot and cups on the table in front of it. In a corner beside it, the ice crown rests on a pillow atop a pillar. And across the room, a bed hung with curtains depicting thorned vines and blue flowers.

He walks to it and sweeps the fabric aside.

Wren is sleeping, her pale cerulean hair spread out over the pillows. He recalls brushing it out when they were in the Court of Moths. Recalls the wild tangle of it and the way she held herself very still while his hands touched her.

Her eyes move restlessly under their lids, as though she doesn’t even feel safe in dreams. Her skin has a glassy quality, as though from sweat or possibly ice.

What has she been doing to herself ?

He takes a step closer, knowing he shouldn’t. His hand reaches out, as though he might graze his fingers over her cheek. As though to prove to himself that she’s real, and there, and alive.

He doesn’t touch her, of course. He’s not that much of a fool.

But as though she can sense him, Wren opens her eyes.