We danced once before, at the coronation of Prince Dain. Before the murdering began. Before I took Cardan prisoner at knifepoint. I wonder if he is thinking of it when he spins me around the Milkwood.
He might not be particularly practiced with a blade, but as he promised the hag’s daughter, he’s a skilled dancer. I let him steer me through steps I doubtless would have fumbled. My heart is racing and my skin is slicked with sweat.
Papery moths fly above our heads, circling up as though tragically drawn to the light of the stars.
“Whatever you do to me,” I say, too angry to stay quiet. “I can do worse to you.”
“Oh,” he says, fingers tight on mine. “Do not think I forget that for a moment. You’d never allow it.”
“Then why?” I demand.
“You believe I planned your humiliation?” he laughs. “Me? That sounds like work.”
“I don’t care if you did or not,” I tell him, too angry to make sense of my feelings. “I just care that you enjoyed it.”
“And why shouldn’t I delight to see you squirm? You tricked me,” Cardan says. “You played me for a fool and now I am the King of Fools.”
“The High King of Fools,” I say, sneer in my voice. Our gaze meets and there’s a shock of recognition, of mutual understanding that our bodies are pressed too close. I am conscious of my skin, of the sweat beading on my lip, of the slide of my thighs against one another. I am aware of the warmth of his neck beneath my twined fingers, of the prickly brush of his hair and how I want to sink my hands into it. I inhale the scent of him — moss and oak wood and leather. I stare at his treacherous mouth and imagine it on me.
Everything about this is wrong. Around us, the revel is resuming. Some of the Court glances our way, because some of the Court always looks to the High King, but Locke’s game is at an end.
Go back to the palace, Cardan had said and I’d ignored the warning.
I think of Locke’s expression while Cardan spoke, the eagerness in his face. It wasn’t me he was watching. I wonder for the first time if my humiliation was incidental, the bait to his hook.
Tell us what you think of our Lady.
To my immense relief, at the end of the reel, the musicians pause again, looking to the High King for instructions.
I pull away from him. “I am overcome, your Majesty. I would like your permission to withdraw.”
For a moment, I wonder what I will do if Cardan denies me permission. I have issued many commands, but none about sparing my feelings. My mistake.
“You are free to depart or stay, as you like,” Cardan says magnanimously. “The Queen of Mirth is welcome wheresoever she goes.”
I stumble away from him and out of the revel to lean against a tree, sucking in breaths of cool sea air. My cheeks are hot, my face is burning.
At the edge of the Milkwood, I see waves beating against the black rocks. Then I notice shapes on the sand, as though shadows were moving on their own. I blink again. Not shadows. Selkies, rising from the sea. A score, at least. They cast off their sleek seal skins and raise silver blades.