Journey to the Court of Moths In this Excerpt From Holly Black’s The Stolen HeirBooks Features Holly Black
Fans of Holly Black’s bestselling Folk of the Air trilogy have been counting down the days until the release of The Stolen Heir. A sequel of sorts that tells a story set eight years later in the same universe, the novel puts several of the original series’ minor characters center stage for their own adventure and introduces us to several new, darker corners of heer Faerie universe along the way.
??The story primarily follows Suren, the young changeling queen we met briefly in The Queen of Nothing and whose abusive relationship with her parents has led her to abandon Faerie for the mortal world. Lonely and haunted, she spends most of her time releasing humans from ill-considered bargains with faeries and trying to avoid the storm hag Bogdana who serves her mother’s court. But when she’s rescued from the witch by none other than Prince Oak—Elfhame’s heir, Jude’s brother, and Wren’s former betrothed—the pair will embark on a journey that will change them both forever
Here’s how the publisher describes the story.
Eight years have passed since the Battle of the Serpent. But in the icy north, Lady Nore of the Court of Teeth has reclaimed the Ice Needle Citadel. There, she is using an ancient relic to create monsters of stick and snow who will do her bidding and exact her revenge.
Suren, child queen of the Court of Teeth, and the one person with power over her mother, fled to the human world. There, she lives feral in the woods. Lonely, and still haunted by the merciless torments she endured in the Court of Teeth, she bides her time by releasing mortals from foolish bargains. She believes herself forgotten until the storm hag, Bogdana chases her through the night streets. Suren is saved by none other than Prince Oak, heir to Elfhame, to whom she was once promised in marriage and who she has resented for years.
Now seventeen, Oak is charming, beautiful, and manipulative. He’s on a mission that will lead him into the north, and he wants Suren’s help. But if she agrees, it will mean guarding her heart against the boy she once knew and a prince she cannot trust, as well as confronting all the horrors she thought she left behind.
The Stolen Heir is available now, wherever books are sold, but to get you in the spirit to return to Elfhame, we’ve got an excerpt from the book’s fifth chapter for you below, which takes Oak, Suren, and their traveling companions into the dangerous and glittering Court of Moths as they seek a witch who can help them track down a magical object.
“Get on up,” Tiernan says impatiently, nodding toward the kelpie.
The thing doesn’t even have a saddle, no less reins. I look longingly at Damsel and wonder if the knight is forcing me onto a carnivorous monster out of sheer dislike.
But Oak goes to it willingly enough, patting its flank absently. Then he swings onto the kelpie’s back and reaches down a hand to me. He is wearing his golden armor again, the boy who’d been my friend disappearing into a man I don’t know.
The knight heaves me up behind the prince. As my hands go to Oak’s waist, I am aware of the warmth of his skin even through the scale armor, of his body pressed against my thighs, and while the cloak he loaned me covers the thinness of my gown, it cannot protect me from that.
“Hope you’re feeling rested after all that deathsweet,” Tiernan tells Oak. “Because you’re mutilating our timetable.”
Oak gives him a look that makes me suspect the prince will finally call him to account for his familiarity. But if so, this is not the moment. I wonder how hard it is for the kelpie not to run directly into a pond and drown us both. But, as one of the solitary fey, he has very likely made vows of obedience to Elfhame, and I can only hope those hold. I barely have time to wrap my arms around the prince’s waist and try not to fall. Then we’re off, thundering through the late afternoon without cease.
Through the sap-smeared woods of the Pine Barrens, crossing highways filled with the bright headlights of cars, we ride. My hair whips behind me, and when Oak glances back, I have to look away. Circlet at his brow, sword at his belt, in his shining mail, he looks like a knight from a child’s imaginings, out of a storybook.
Break of day comes in pinks and golds, and the sun is high above us when we come to a stop. My thighs are sorer than before from rubbing against the kelpie’s flanks, and even my bones feel tired. My hair is knotted worse than ever.
We make camp in a forest, quiet and deep. The distant hiss of traffic tells me that mortal roads are near, but if I don’t listen too closely, I could mistake that for the sounds of a stream. Oak unpacks and unrolls blankets while Tiernan starts a fire. Hyacinthe watches, as if daring to be asked to help.
I slip away and return with handfuls of persimmons, two dryad’s saddle mushrooms as large as helmets, wild garlic, and spicebush twigs. Even Tiernan pronounces himself impressed by my finds, although I think he’s annoyed that Oak allowed me to wander off.
The prince ignores him and rigs up a way to cook the mushrooms. They’ve brought cheese and good black bread, and while we eat, Oak tells us stories of the Court. Ridiculous parties held by the High King. Pranks Oak has personally played and been punished for. No mention of his lovers, but he recounts a tragicomic romance involving a phooka, a pixie, and one of the king’s counselors that was still playing out when he left.
Even Tiernan seemed different in the firelight. When he poured tea for Hyacinthe, he added honey without being asked, as though he’d made it that way many times before. And when he handed it over and their fingers met, I recognized in his face the sharp pain of longing, the unwillingness to ask for what you knew you would be denied. He hid it quickly, but not quickly enough.
“Will you tell me what this hag in the Court of Moths is supposed to find for us?” I ask when the stories come to an end.
I want the answer, but more than that, I want to know if they trust me enough to give me one.
Tiernan looks in Oak’s direction, but the prince is looking directly at me, clear-eyed. “The limits of Lady Nore’s power, I hope. The Thistlewitch lived during the time of Mab, and there was a curse on Mab’s bones, if I understand right.”
“So not an object?” I ask, thinking of their conversation in the woods.
Oak shrugs. “That depends on what she tells us.”
I mull over his answer as I bed down in some of the prince’s blankets. They are perfumed with the scents of Elfhame, and I pull my own muddy covering close to my nose to blot out the smell.
That afternoon there is another long, exhausting ride, with only a brief break for food. By the time we stop, I feel ready to fall off the kelpie’s back and not care if it starts nibbling on me.
Nearby a wide, brackish river froths, bubbling around rock. Tall, slender saw palmettos make lonely islands of rubble and root. On a steep slope, a single wall of a five-story concrete building stands. It looks like a castle cut out of construction paper, flat instead of three-dimensional.
“The entrance to the Court of Moths is supposed to be here somewhere,” Tiernan says.
I slide off the kelpie and lie down in the weeds while Oak and Tiernan debate where to find the entrance to the brugh. I breathe in the fine mist from the water, the scents of loam and clotted river grass.
When I open my eyes, a young man is standing where the kelpie was. Brown hair the color of mud in a riverbed and eyes the murky green of stagnant water. I startle, scuttling away, and reach into my pack for a knife.
“Greetings,” he says expansively, bowing. “You must wish to know the name of the one who carried you on his back, who so stalwartly aided a young prince in his time of need, before the beginning of his true reign—”
“Sure,” I say, interrupting him.
“Jack of the Lakes,” he says with a menacing grin. “A merry wight.
And whom do I have the honor of addressing?” He looks at me.
“Wren,” I say, and immediately wish I hadn’t. It’s not my true name, but all names have some power.
“You have an unusual voice,” he says. “Raspy. Quite fetching, really.”
“I damaged my vocal cords a long time ago,” I inform him. “Screaming.”
Oak steps between us, and I am grateful for the reprieve. “What a fine gentleman you make, Jack.”
Jack turns to the prince, his sinister smile dropping back into place. “Oak and Wren. Wren and Oak. Delightful! Named for woodland creatures, but neither of you so simple.” He glances at Tiernan and Hyacinthe. “Not nearly as simple as these two.”
“That’s enough,” Tiernan says.
Jack’s gaze stays on Oak. “Will you caper for the pleasure of the Queen of Moths? For she is a grim ruler, and her favor hard to win. Not that you need to concern yourself with impressing anyone, Your Highness.”
I get a cold feeling at his words.
“I don’t mind a caper,” Oak says.
“That’s enough impertinence,” says Tiernan, inserting himself into the conversation. He stands with his shoulders back and his arms folded, the picture of the officer in Madoc’s army that he must have once been. “You had the privilege of carrying the prince a ways, and that’s that. Whatever we see fit to give you in recompense, be it a coin or a kick in the teeth, you’ll take it and be grateful.”
Jack of the Lakes sniffs, offended.
Hyacinthe’s eyes glitter with anger, as though he feels the knight spoke directly to him.
“Nonsense,” Oak tells Jack. “Your hooves were swift and sure. Come with us to the Court, rest your feet, and take some refreshment.” He claps his hand on Tiernan’s shoulder. “We’re the ones with reason to be grateful, isn’t that so?”
The knight pointedly ignores him, clearly not experiencing the awe of Prince Oak that he expects of Jack of the Lakes.
“This way,” the prince says, and ushers us along the bank. I follow, trying not to slide on the wet mud.
“Decide for yourself how well they repay gratitude,” says Hyacinthe to the kelpie, touching the leather strap of the bridle he wears. “And do not give them cause for too much of it.”
Tiernan rolls his eyes.
There’s solid concrete blocking our path, with the river on one side and a hill covered in poisonous manchineel trees on the other. The remains of the old building have no door, only large windows that show an even more forbidding and swampy landscape beyond. And yet I can feel the stillness in the air, the crackling presence of magic. Oak stops, frowning. I am sure he can feel it, too.
The prince presses his hand against the concrete, like he’s trying to find the source.
Jack of the Lakes is wading in the water, looking eager to drag someone down into its depths.
Hyacinthe moves to stand nearby, his free hand clenching as though missing something. I wonder what weapon he used when he was a soldier. “I bet you think you’re all great friends now.”
I lower my voice to a rasp, remembering our conversation by the sea. “I am not under anyone’s spell.”
His gaze goes to the prince, standing on a windowsill, and then back to me. “He seems like an open book, but that’s the game he plays. He keeps plenty of secrets. For instance, did you know he received a message from Lady Nore?”
“A message?” I echo.
He smiles, satisfied he has rattled me.
Before I can press him for details, Oak turns to us with a grin that calls for an answer. “Come look.”
A meadow of flowers flows impossibly from the other side of the window. There is no river there, no scrub grass or mud. Just endless blooms, and among them scattered bones, as white as petals.
He hops into the meadow, hooves sinking beneath the flowers, and then reaches up for me.
Do not fall under his spell.
I remind myself that I knew Oak when we were children, that we have the same enemies. That he has no reason to play me false. Still, thinking of Hyacinthe’s words, I shake my head at Oak’s offer of help and climb down myself.
“It’s beautiful, no?” he asks, a little smile on his face. A light in his fox eyes.
It is, of course. All of Faerie is beautiful like this, with carnage hidden just beneath. “I am sure the Queen of Moths will be delighted that the Crown Prince thinks so.”
“You’re in a prickly mood,” he tells me.
As though I am not all-over briars at all times.
We walk through a landscape with no sun or moon above us until we come to a patch of earth with a deep pit half?hidden by swirling fog. There cut into the dirt are steps spiraling down into darkness.
“The Court of Moths,” says Jack of the Lakes softly.
As I glance back at the field, the bones bother me: signs of death strewn among a carpet of flowers. I wish we had not come here. I have a dread that feels like premonition.
I notice that Oak has his hand on his sword as he begins his descent.
We follow, Tiernan behind the prince, then me and Jack, with Hyacinthe bringing up the rear, bridle tight against his cheeks. I hold my knife against my belly, inhale the rich scent of earth, and remember all the times I broke curses, all the tricks I played on the Folk.
We step into a long hall of packed dirt, with pale roots forming a latticework along the ceiling. Occasional glowing crystals light our way. I find myself growing more uncomfortable the deeper we go into the hill. I feel the weight of the earth above me, as though the passageway could collapse, burying us all. I bite my lip and keep going.
Finally, we step into a high-ceilinged cavern, its walls shining with mica.
There stands a green-skinned troll woman, with piercings through her cheeks and two sets of black horns protruding from her head. Sabers hang on either side of her hips. She wears armor of leather, carefully worked so that it seems as though there are a dozen screaming mouths on her chest plate.
At the sight of us, she scowls. “I guard the passage to the Court of Moths. Declare your name and your purpose in coming here. Then I will very likely kill you.”
The expression on Tiernan’s face hardens. “Do you not know your own sovereign? This is Prince Oak, heir to Elfhame.”
The troll’s gaze goes to Oak, looking as though she could eat him in three bites. Finally, she makes a reluctant, shallow bow. “You do us honor.”
The prince, for his part, appears genuinely pleased to meet her and not the least bit afraid, bespeaking either great arrogance or foolishness, or both. “The honor is ours,” he says, looking ready to kiss her hand if she offered it to him. I cannot imagine being so certain of one’s welcome.
Just imagining it makes my stomach hurt.
“We seek the Thistlewitch, who dwells in Queen Annet’s lands. We understand that without permission to see her, supplicants become lost in her swamp for a hundred years,” Oak says.
The troll tilts her head, as if still evaluating his deliciousness. “Some don’t make it back at all.”
The prince nods, as though she’s confirming his suspicions. “Alas, we don’t have time for either of those options.”
The troll smiles a little despite herself, at the silliness of his words. “And your companions?”
“Sir Tiernan,” says the knight, pointing to himself. “Jack of the Lakes. Lady Wren. Our prisoner, Hyacinthe.”
The troll’s gaze glides over Hyacinthe and Jack to rest on me for an uncomfortably long moment. My lip curls in automatic response, to reveal the points of my teeth.
Far from looking discomfited, the troll woman gives me a nod, as though appreciative of their sharpness and my mistrust.
“Queen Annet will wish to greet you personally,” the troll says, kicking the wall behind her three times. “She is fain to fete you in her hall and all that sort of thing. I’ve summoned a servant to bring you to some rooms. There, you may refresh yourselves and dress for the evening’s revel. We will even lock up your prisoner for the night.”
“There’s no need for that,” Oak says. The troll grins. “And yet we will do it.”
Hyacinthe glances in Tiernan’s direction, perhaps looking to his former lover to speak in his behalf. I feel all around me the closing of a trap, and yet I do not think I am the one who is meant to be caught.
“We would be delighted to enjoy the hospitality of the Court of Moths,” Oak says. If he hopes to get what he came for, it would be impossible for him to say anything else.
The troll guard’s smile grows impossibly wide. “Good. You may follow Dvort.”
I note her gaze and turn, startled to see that one of the Folk has crept in behind us. His skin and beard are the same color as the roots winding down from the ceiling, his eyes a bloodshot pink. His ears are long, like those of a rabbit, and his clothes appear to be covered in a layer of moss, heavier on his shoulders. He does not speak, only bows, then turns and shuffles down the passageway.
Hyacinthe bumps my shoulder with his. “Before they take me, let me prove what I’ve said and give you at least this much information. The prince’s mother was a gancanagh. A love-talker. Honey-mouths, we used to call them back at Court.”
I give a quick shake of my head, dreading what he will say next.
“You’ve not heard of them? A love-talker is able to quicken such desire in mortals that they die of it. The Folk might not find the passion lethal, but we still feel it. Oak’s first mother charmed the High King Eldred and his son Dain into her bed. Oak’s half brother is said to have made both Jude and her twin, Taryn, his lovers and stolen Cardan’s former betrothed from his side. What do you suppose the prince is able—”
Hyacinthe bites off his last words because we have stopped in front of four doors, all of them of stone with spiraling metal hinges.
But I can’t help finishing the sentence for him, the way I fear it would have gone. What do you suppose the prince is able to do to someone like you? A shudder goes through me, a recognition of a desire that I would have preferred to deny.
Was that how he made everyone feel? No wonder there was always a girl. No wonder Hyacinthe believes Tiernan is wrapped around his finger.
Dvort bows again, gesturing toward the rooms, then gives Hyacinthe a shove to keep moving into one of three branching passageways.
“He stays with us,” Oak says.
“You heard His Majesty.” Despite the sneer in his voice when he speaks of Oak, Hyacinthe obviously doesn’t want to be taken. He attempts to move around the page, toward the prince. But the silent page blocks his way.
Oak’s hand goes to the hilt of a blade.
“Enough,” Tiernan says, grabbing the prince’s arm. “They want you to break hospitality. Stop it. It shouldn’t hurt Hyacinthe to cool his heels in the queen’s prison for one night. I’ll accompany him and make sure he’s comfortable enough.”
“Unseelie is as Unseelie does,” says Jack of the Lakes with some relish.
I watch them go, panic rising as our party is cleft in two. When I am ushered into my room, I only feel worse.
It is a grim chamber, its walls carved of stone and earth. There is a rough bed in one corner, heaped with blankets and opulent cushions, and hung with tapestries. Each curtain depicts hunted creatures bleeding out in forests of colorful foliage, their bodies full of arrows.
There’s a jug of water and a washbasin on a stand, and a few hooks on the wall. I take a turn about the room, looking for spy holes, secret passageways, and hidden dangers.
The place makes my skin itch. Though it is warm here, and nothing is ice, it reminds me entirely too much of the Court of Teeth. I want to be away.
I sit on the bed, counting to one hundred, hoping that the panicky feeling will pass.
Just as I get to number eighty?eight, Oak opens the door. “I’ve arranged for you to see the royal seamstress.”
My gaze alights on the hollow of his throat just above his collar. I try to avoid his eyes.
“I don’t want to go.” All I want is to curl up in a corner until we can leave.
He looks incredulous. “You can hardly attend the revel like that.”
Shame heats my cheeks, looking at him in all his finery.
It’s not fair. I am cleaner than I’ve been in weeks. It’s true that there are holes in my dress, the hem is ragged, and there are places where the fabric has worn thin enough to tear. Still, it’s mine.
“If you think I will embarrass you, leave me to this room,” I growl, hoping he agrees.
“If you go as you are, it will appear as though Elfhame does not value you, and that’s perilous in the Court of Moths,” he says.
I scowl, unwilling to be reasonable.
The prince sighs, pushing hair out of his fox eyes. “If you remain in this room, Tiernan must stay to watch over you, and he has a hankering to drink the sweet wines and hear the songs of the Court of Moths. Now, up. You can put your old dress back on tomorrow.”
Humiliated, I rise and follow him.
Someone sings an eerie little song on the other side of the seamstress’s door, and I feel the pull of magic, thick clots of it. Whatever is inside has power.
I shoot Oak a look of warning, but he knocks anyway.
The song stops.
“Who calls at Habetrot’s chamber?” comes a whispery voice.
Oak raises his eyebrows at me, as though he intends me to answer.
Fine, if that’s what he wants. “Suren, whose garb has been deemed inadequate by an obnoxious prince, despite the fact I’ve seen people go naked to revels.”
Rather than be insulted, Oak laughs delightedly.
The door opens to reveal a woman with frog-green skin, a wide lower lip, and wild eyebrows. Dressed in a black garment large enough to swallow up her body, she’s bent so far over that her fingers nearly touch the ground.
She looks at me and blinks wet black eyes. “Come, come,” she calls.
“I’ll leave you to it,” says Oak with a departing bow.
I bite my lip against snarling and follow the faerie into a tunnel that’s so low-ceilinged that I have to stoop.
When we emerge, it is into a chamber filled with bolts of cloth resting on shelves that go up high enough to be shrouded in darkness. What light there is comes from candles set in sconces around the room, covered in globes of cloudy glass.
“You know what they say about me?” Habetrot whispers. “That instead of sewing garments, I pluck them out of dreams. Raiments such as I create have never been seen before, or since. So, what do you dream of?”
I frown down at my tattered dress in confusion.
“Forest girl, is that what you were? One of the solitary fey brought to Court?”
I nod, because that’s true enough, in a way.
“Perhaps you want something of bark and furs?” she asks, walking around me, squinting a little as though seeing some vision of what she will put me in.
“If that’s appropriate,” I say, unsure.
She grabs hold of my arm, encircling it with her fingers to measure. “Surely you would not insult me with such a lack of extravagance?”
I am at a loss. Even if she could see into my dreams, she would find no garment of the sort she would have me imagine. “I don’t know what I want.” The words come out a whisper, too true by half.
“Destruction and ruin,” she says with a clack of her tongue. “I can practically smell it on you.”
I shake my head, but I can’t help thinking of the satisfaction I felt wrecking the glaistig’s spells. Sometimes it feels as though there’s a knot inside me, and were it to come apart, whatever emerged would be all teeth.
Habetrot regards me with her bead?black eyes, unsmiling. Then starts searching among her bolts of cloth.
Once, the thing I am wearing was a sundress, with fluttery sleeves. A diaphanous white gown that flowed around me when I spun. I found it in a shop late one night. I’d stripped off the clothes given to me in the Court of Teeth, left them behind, and put that on instead.
I liked the dress so much that I wove myself a crown of hellebores and danced through the night streets. I stared at myself in puddles, convinced that so long as I didn’t smile, I might even be pretty. I know it doesn’t look like that anymore, but I can no longer picture myself in anything else.
I wish Oak could have seen the dress as it was, even though it hasn’t looked that way in a long time.
A few minutes later, Habetrot comes over with a fabric in a soft, deep gray that seems to shift in her hands between brown and blue when she turns it in the light. My fingers stray to the cloth, petting the nap of the velvet. It is as soft as the cloak that the prince draped over my shoulders.
“Yes, yes,” she says. “This will do. Arms out like a bird. There.”
As I stand there, letting her drape me in fabric, my gaze goes to her collections of buttons and fiber and cloth. To the spindle resting in one corner and the shimmer of the thread in it, bright as starlight.
“You,” Habetrot says, poking me in the side. “Shoulders back. Don’t crouch like an animal.”
I do what she tells me but bare my teeth at her. She bares her teeth in return. They are blunt, blackened along the gums.
“I have dressed queens and knights, giants and hags. I will dress you, too, and give that for which you were too afraid to ask.”
I don’t see how that is possible, but I do not argue. I think instead of the way we came. I counted the passages, and I am almost certain I know the way back to the fog-shrouded hole in the ground. I go over them again and again to fix them in my memory in case I have to run. In case we all have to run.
When she has my measurements and perhaps my measure, she goes to her table and begins to rip and stitch, leaving me to awkwardly wander the room, peering at ribbons, some of which seem to be made of woven hair, others of toad skin. I pocket a pair of sharp-looking scissors with a handle in the shape of a swan. They are lighter than my knives and much easier to conceal.
I cannot deny that though I have avoided the Folk, I am fascinated by them. Despite them being deceivers, and dangerous.
My gaze alights on a button the exact shining golden bronze of Oak’s hair. Then another the purple of Hyacinthe’s eyes.
I think of him in the dungeons. Hyacinthe, half-cursed, wearing that awful bridle, so desperate that he would seek help even from me.
“Come and try this on,” says Habetrot, surprising me out of my thoughts.
“But it’s only been a few moments,” I say, puzzled.
“Magic,” she reminds me with a flourish, then ushers me behind a screen. “And give me that dress you’re wearing. I want to burn it.”
I pull the worn fabric over my head, letting it fall to the floor between us and fixing her with a look that dares her to wrest it from me. I feel as vulnerable as a selkie taking off her skin.
Habetrot pushes the soft blue?purple?gray garment into my hands. I put it on carefully, feeling the slide of the lining smooth against my skin, feeling the comforting weight of fabric.
It is a gown, but one such as I have never seen before. It is composed mostly of the cloth she showed me, but there are strips of other material running through it, some diaphanous and others satiny, some patterned in butterfly wings, some felted wool. Dangling threads hang from torn edges, and a few pieces of thin fabric have been wadded up to give them a new texture. The swirling patchwork she has created is at once tattered and beautiful.
As I look at it, I am not sure what to think. It is mockery that makes her dress me thus, in rags and scraps, no matter how deftly put together?
But perhaps that’s what she thought would best suit me. Perhaps it is Oak who is the fool, who caught a wolf and thought that by putting it in a gown and speaking to it as though it were a girl, it would become one.
At least the hem of the skirt doesn’t drag impractically on the floor. I can still run in it as I howl at the moon.
“Come out, come out,” she says.
I step from behind the screen, taking a sharp breath as I do so, dreading seeing myself in the mirror and feeling the burn of further humiliation.
The little seamstress pushes me toward a polished bronze thing that looks like a shield. My reflection stares back at me.
I am taller than I remembered. My hair is a wild tangle despite my attempts at finger-combing and washing it back at the motel. I never got out all the knots. My clavicle shows at the top of the collar, and I know I am too thin. But the dress clings to my chest and waist, skirt flaring over my hips. The tattered edges give it a haunting elegance, as though I am wrapped in the shadows of dusk. I look the picture of a mysterious courtier, rather than someone who sleeps in dirt.
Habetrot drops boots beside me, and I realize how long I’ve been standing there, staring at myself. A different kind of shame heats my cheeks.
I twist my hands in the skirt. The dress even has pockets.
“I knew I kept these,” she says, indicating the footwear. “If he’s half as taken with you as you are with yourself, I imagine he’ll be well pleased.”
“Who?” I demand sharply, but she only shrugs and presses a bone comb into my hand.
“Fix your hair,” she says, then shrugs again. “Or make it wilder. You look lovely either way.”
“What will you want for all this?” I ask, thinking of all the faerie bargains I’ve overheard, and of how much I like the dress I am wearing, how I could use the boots. I understand the temptation felt by every fool in a forest.
Her bead-black eyes study me, then she shakes her head. “I serve Queen Annet, and she bade me gift whatever the prince of the High Court asked, were it within the scope of my talents.”
Of course someone must have told Oak where Habetrot’s chambers were and assured him that she could do what he asked. So it is not Habetrot I owe, but Oak. And he owes Queen Annet in turn. My heart sinks. Debt is not easily dismissed in Faerie.
And the Court of Moths are showing off what good hosts they are.
“The gown is the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen,” I say to her, as I can pay her no other way without insult. It has been a long time since I have been given a gift, barbed though it may be. “It does feel as though it might come from a dream.”
That makes Habetrot’s cheeks pink. “Good. Maybe you will come back and tell me how the Prince of Sunlight liked the Queen of Night.”
Embarrassed, I step out into the hall, wondering how she could believe that a dress—no matter how beautiful—could make me into an object of desire. Wondering if everyone at the revel would think that I was dangling after Oak and laugh behind their hands.
I stomp back through the hall to my room and swing open the door, only to find Oak lounging in one of the chairs, his long limbs spread out in shameless comfort. A flower crown of myrtle rests just above his horns. With it, he wears a new shirt of white linen and scarlet trousers embroidered with vines. Even his hooves appear polished.
He looks every bit the handsome faerie prince, beloved by everyone and everything. Rabbits probably eat from his hands. Blue jays try to feed him worms meant for their own children.
He smiles, as though not surprised to see me in a beautiful gown. In fact, his gaze passes over it quickly, to rest with an odd intensity on my face. “Striking,” he says, although I do not see how he could have possibly given it enough attention to know.
I feel both shy and resentful.
The Prince of Sunlight.
I do not bother telling him what he looks like. I am sure he already knows.
He brushes one hand through his golden curls. “We have an audience with Annet. Hopefully we can persuade her to send us to the Thistlewitch swiftly. Until then, we have been invited to roam her halls and eat from her banquet tables.”
I sit on a stool, pull on my new boots, and then tie up the laces. “Why do you think she took Hyacinthe?”
Oak rubs a hand over his face. “I believe she wanted to show she could. I hope there’s no more to it than that.”
I take the comb from a pocket of my new dress and then hesitate. If I begin to untangle my nimbus of snarls, he will see how badly my hair is matted and be reminded of where he found me.
Good. He will leave, and then I will be able to wrangle my hair alone.
But instead he steps behind me and takes the comb from my hands. “Let me do that,” he says, taking strands of my hair in his fingers. “It’s the color of primroses.”
My shoulders tense. I am unused to people touching me. “You don’t need to—” I start.
“It’s no trouble,” he says. “I had three older sisters brushing and braiding mine, no matter how I howled. I had to learn to do theirs, in self?defense. And my mother . . .”
His fingers are clever. He holds each lock at the base, slowly teasing out the knots at the very ends and then working backward to the scalp. Under his hands, it becomes smooth ribbons. If I had done this, I would have yanked half of it out in frustration.
“Your mother . . . ,” I echo, prompting him to continue in a voice that shakes only a little.
He begins to braid, sweeping my hair up so that thick plaits become something like his circlet, wrapping around my head.
“When we were in the mortal world, away from her servants, she needed help arranging it.” His voice is soft.
This, along with the slightly painful pull against my scalp, the brush of his fingertips against my neck as he separates a section, the slight frown of concentration on his face, is overwhelming. I am not accustomed to someone being this close.
When I look up, his smile is all invitation.
We are no longer children, playing games and hiding beneath his bed, but I feel as though this is a different kind of game, one where I do not understand the rules.
With a shiver, I take up the mirror from the dresser. In this hair and with this dress, I look pretty. The kind of pretty that allows monsters to deceive people into forests, into dances where they will find their doom.
The Stolen Heir is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.