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Cardan hasn’t seen all sides of Jude Duarte. The thing that differs from his and most everyone’s understanding of her, is that he knows it. Knows she’s more than just a human girl who got lucky, knows that the danger of her isn’t that she wants the king’s favour, but that she doesn’t care for it.

And yet, it’s somehow still a surprise when he felts the point of her dagger at his throat again. If nothing else, he hadn’t thought she could move so quietly. They pause there for a moment, the king on his balcony, the Queen in the shadows behind him. A decanter of wine rests on an elegantly wrought table where he had been about to indulge.

A shame he hadn’t started sooner.

“Did you really think I wouldn’t find out?”

He wonders about that. If the crown currently shoved in a drawer somewhere hadn’t shown just how skilled Jude is, the last ten months have been a crash course in the extent of her resilience and resourcefulness.

It’d be admirable, if it didn’t so often result in making his life more difficult. Had he really thought she wouldn’t find out he’d had people watching her family in the mortal world?

“Not especially,” he murmurs, weighing up how likely it is that she’s about to murder him. Not very, she still needs him for her master plan, but there’s a non-zero chance she’s got a back up at this point.

The chill edge of her blade splits skin, so fine he hardly feels it. Her hand fists in his hair, and he just barely manages to bite back a gasp at the sudden zing of need searing through him when she yanks his head back.

“Why.”

His lips part. He doesn’t miss the brief flicker of her gaze; when they had first started this little dance of theirs, he’d thought it might give him the upper had.

He knows better now.

“You can kill me before I call for my guards,” he says. Stars, what he wouldn’t give for a goblet with something in it. “But they know it was you who entered.”

“Yes,” she agrees, and for the first time since cool steel kissed his skin, he feels a chill.

She has her Court, their loyalty bought with gold and bound with something deeper. It had not occurred to Cardan that there would be other fairies so...susceptible to Jude’s particular brand of mortality.

The chill is swallowed almost immediately by something hot and fierce and barely related to the situation at hand. His tail tightens, wrapped around his thigh. Her grip in his hair has not loosened an inch.

“Jude,” he says, savouring the sound of her name on his mouth and the twitch on hers. A grimace, sure, but a sign she’s not unaffected. He has hated this girl and he has hated himself for thinking of her, but the only thing he could truly not stand is her own indifference. “What reason do you think a king would have to keep tabs on the things his kingmaker cares about?”

“To keep tabs on a threat. But you don’t want to be king, Cardan.”

“I mean, you do have a knife at my throat. King or not, that makes you a threat.”

“Tell me the truth.”

He bites off a snarl, feeling the sting of her geas take hold. It’s not only the compulsion that drives him up the wall; it’s the constant reminder of the mistake he had made in trusting her to begin with.

“I - was curious,” he starts, trying desperately to pick his words with care even as the compulsion drives him forward. The palace grounds spread out before them, wild and wicked in the twilight. His birthright, and he has never felt less at home. “About y - about what creates a mortal like you. Jude.”

Her name on the end there is a helpless addition and he’s not even sure why he does it. To remind himself of who she is. To remind her. As though either of them even know anymore. The quiet hum of palace life fills what little space exists between them as she considers his words, and Cardan’s mind flickers, unbidden, to another evening spent close to her. The two of them side by side, his fingers tracing the blunt curve of her ear--

He shudders, lust and loathing coiling in his gut. It’s impossible to tease them apart, and he suspects he’s stopped trying. She breathes out hard, once, the soft air brushing over his skin. He thinks he can feel the pressure of her forehead against the knobs of his spine, but then her knife is slipping away from his neck and the chill is that much worse for not having her boy pressed up against him.

He leans forward, fingers curling over the railing, wrought to look like vines twisting in on themselves. Funny, how he can hear her leaving when he had been unable to catch her arriving.

“Jude.”

He doesn’t expect her to stop. So when the fall of her boots on marble turns to silence, he tears his gaze away from the grounds and the wine and back towards his rooms, where she is much closer than he had anticipated. Not close. But nowhere near the doors.

She holds her hands out helplessly. The dagger is nowhere to be seen. “What am I supposed to do with that, Cardan?”

“You’re the mastermind. You tell me.”

Here is the thing, though, the prize that all of his careful watching has earned him. Jude is a mastermind, yes. A puppetmaster, even, and he can feel her strings winding tighter and tighter around his body the closer they get to being out of this bargain that has turned his life inside out.

But she’s a girl, too. A girl who loves her family even when she hates them, who has been swimming to keep from drowning the same as him, who does not despise him to quite the degree he supposes she has the right to.

One of those strings pulls taught between them as he steps inside, shutting the glass door behind him and locking the rest of the world out. It’s not clear, when she lifts her chin up at him, which one is doing the tugging.

“I hate you,” she reminds him.

“It’s mutual,” he reminds her, and lowers his mouth to hers.

It’s not the first time since she had decided to test him. He suspects that every time it happens, she promises herself it’ll never happen again, so if there’s a smug curve to his expression when one of her hands curls into the silk of his shirt, he’s going to own that, and she’s going to have to live with it.

Kissing Jude Duarte is like shoving your head directly into a lion’s maw. Exhilarating, sure, but it’s only a matter of time before something catastrophic happens. His tail unwinds itself from his thigh, thrashing uncertainly; he takes a risk, curls his hand over her hip, slides his thumb over the bare strip of skin between her shirt and her breeches, and has the air knocked out of him when her free hand flashes up to his throat.

She shoves, pushing a groan out of him when his back hits a wall, his head soon after. Loose strands of hair have slipped out of her utilitarian bun, framing a face twisted in irritation and something else, something he’d call want on anyone else. But this is Jude, and while he takes pleasure in what power he does have over her, there’s no geas binding her to him, no forcing her to be honest.

He has already learnt the hard way that he can’t trust himself when it comes to judging her motivations.

“You’re bleeding,” she remarks. He catches the hint of breathlessness, breathes a laugh in response. He can’t manage anything louder around the pressure of her hand at his windpipe.

“Isn’t that how you like me?”

Jude grimaces but she doesn’t move away. He catches that too-clever gaze dip from his mouth to the line of his neck. Her thumb is positioned right over the cut and he can feel the salt in her skin as it slides over the split. His imagination skips right ahead, thinks of her lifting that thumb to her lips, his blood on her tongue. His tail flicks again, the very tip of it brushing the back of her knee.

The pressure on his throat eases. “This is so stupid,” she mutters. He doesn’t have time to agree before her mouth is on him again, her body pressed flush to his like she’s trying to get as close as possible, or maybe just like she’s trying to put him through the wall.

Cardan will take her how he can get her. She cups his face in her hands, smearing his own blood over his cheek, dragging a hiss out of him when one hand fists in his hair again. His own fingers clench in on themselves for a second, empty, before he can’t help himself; they start at her shoulders and slide lower, tracing vertebrae.

He reaches the small of her back and hesitates; she feels it and tugs at his bottom lip with her teeth, drawing a growl from somewhere in his chest. She’s almost silent as she kisses a path from the corner of his mouth, across the line of his jaw, teeth scraping over his vulnerable throat - but somewhere beyond the roaring rush of blood in his ears he thinks he can hear her breathe, soft and fast.

It catches when his hands slide lower, over the curve of her ass, hitching her against him. Her mouth stills against his and he has time to wonder where, exactly, she put that dagger before those blunt teeth find the junction of neck and shoulder and bite.

Cardan curses, but that dull throb of pain is nothing compared to the sweet sting of pleasure sweeping through his nerves. Jude’s knee hooks over his hip and he takes half a second to push back off the wall so she can wrap her legs around his waist.

She does, her thighs spread and open to him and that - that’s a thought more intoxicating than any wine or mead he could get his hands on. He wonders if it occurs to her at the same moment, if that’s why she pulls her face away from him, why she lets her fingers slip from his hair and places both palms against his chest instead. Holding her like this, she’s above him, dark eyes inscrutable as they run over his face.

A thousand biting comments swarm his mouth, ready to spit out at her, not one of them strong enough to force their way through the haze of heat and need clouding his brain. The coiling pleasure low in his gut says that’s just smart business, that this situation isn’t likely to come to a happy close if he pisses her off.

Something else reminds him that she’s already pissed off. His tail draws an idle circle on the back of her thigh and he thinks I don’t want to--

Not breaking eye contact, Jude rolls her hips down. Once, slowly, deliberately, and the motion pulls a sound from somewhere deep in his chest as she grinds against his cock, hot and hard and trapped in his pants. Vulnerable he’d thought, as if the word could ever apply to this girl. The colour is high in her cheeks and he thinks she’s trembling in his hold, that her thighs are shaking around him with effort or need or something else entirely, and then she does is again, a third time, and Cardan has had sex before but he thinks this is going to kill him.

And then she

stops.

“Fuck,” she mutters, legs loosening their iron grip around him. Her head drops, pressing her forehead to his for a brief instant. “Shit.”

He lets her go. He’s not even sure why (he certainly doesn’t want to) but there’s something in the sudden stop, the abruptly tenderness in her face being so close to his without any of that biting desperation - his body reacts before his brain, letting her drop to the floor.

Thunk. None of that silent grace now. She backs off quickly, the back of her wrist pressed to her mouth, eyes wide as they take in the state of him. Cardan squeezes his own eyes shut because that’s easier than looking at her. He tips his head up to the ceiling and laughs, bitter and accepting all at once.

“What was that supposed to prove?” he demands. “What more do you need from me, Jude?”

“I wasn’t trying to prove anything,” she spits, the first thing she’s said all night that hasn’t come out careful and considered. He wants to reach for her and drag her into him. He wants to crack her open and find the source of that searing fire and - and what?

Put it out?

Take it for his own?

He has never known what he wants from Jude Duarte. That’s the whole problem.

“Then what?” He opens his eyes, but the ceiling - painted in a mockery of the stars - doesn’t have any answers for him. “This is a faerie game. Aren’t you supposed to be above all of our little machinations?”

She’s not and they both know she’s not, know that she threw herself in with them all and lost something of herself in the process and maybe this is Cardan trying to dig under her skin because the only thing stopping him from striding forward and dropping to his knees in front of her is the thinnest sliver of pride and loathing.

If he can just remember to hate her, he won’t lose himself to her completely.

“It’s not a game.”

He waits for the excuse, but she just sounds tired. And something else, something he still can’t put his finger on after all these months.

“I can make you do anything,” she says. “For two months and three days and six hours, I can make you do anything. I’m not - I’m not doing this while I have that kind of power over you.”

That this holds an entire world in a single world and it startles him so badly he can’t help but stare at her. She stands defiant before him, fists clenched, out of arm’s reach. The colour is still high in her cheeks, arousal and anger and maybe the slightest hint of embarrassment. All of which would be delightful, if not for his own confusion.

“This is - I’m sorry, this is about consent?” He laughs again, wild with a relief he’s not going to examine too close for its source. “Jude. This is not some sweet and precious moment, and I am not some delicate mortal maiden in need of courting.”

“I’m leaving, Cardan.”

“This is a fuck against a wall!” he throws after her, when she does turn and head for the exit. “Or are you getting sentimental, Jude?”

The door shuts quietly behind her. Cardan stares at it like she’ll come back, like he doesn’t know exactly how strong that will of hers is.

Like he doesn’t know exactly who is getting sentimental, here.

She doesn’t come back.