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“Come, Highness,” Lady Grace said with a glint of mischief in her eye.
Grace’s long, slender fingers wrapped around Ismene’s wrist and pulled her toward the dark alley.
An unwelcome rush of nerves fluttered through her insides. “Where are we going, Lady Grace?”
The skinny one, Lady Miranda, sniggered from beside Ismene, but the unladylike sound only gained her a glare from Grace.
“Tis all part of the fun, Highness.”
“Please don’t call me that.”
“Oh, but I must,” Grace said, her voice sickly-sweet, belying how much she’d like to call Ismene anything but. “Ah! I quite forgot.” Grace yanked Ismene to a halt. In the span of a single breath, she pulled a handkerchief from her bosom, whipped it around Ismene’s head, and effectively blinded her.
“Is this really necessary?” Ismene’s annoyance rang clear, but she thought she’d done a good job of hiding the accompanying surge of panic.
She reached for the blindfold, but Grace pulled her hands away before she could get her fingers on the cloth. “Tut tut, Princess. You wouldn’t want to ruin our fun, now would you?”
Ismene stifled a groan. “It’s tight.” She couldn’t think of anything better to say, and it seemed Grace could read her like an open book.
“Don’t complain, Highness. Tis unbecoming. Besides, not a mark will be left on your adequate face. But there’s nothing to be done for the shambles that is your hair.”
Ismene could hear the insincerity in her voice and fought the urge to give Grace a piece of her mind. Gritting her teeth, she distracted her flaming tongue by checking her braid. It rested intact across her shoulder. Whatever Grace’s idea of shambles was did not match her own.
As suddenly as they’d halted, Grace and Miranda each took Ismene’s hands and pulled her along with haphazard abandon, not bothering to direct her away from tripping on anything. After countless stumbles and one near disaster, Ismene silently vowed to pull the cloth from her eyes, but as she reached for it, Grace ripped the handkerchief off, pulling some strands of Ismene’s hair with it.
“We’ve arrived!” Grace giggled, a grating and almost maniacal sound that seemed out of place in the dingy darkness.
Before them languished a bare plank door, grayed with age and dimly illuminated through cracks in its façade. Grace knocked twice. A scuffle of feet inside introduced the creaking of the door as it swung inward, offering entrance to the three young ladies.
Grace prodded Ismene with a poke to the shoulder and an insistent nod of her head. In such a strange moment, Ismene thought it fitting that the one thing to catch her attention would be how Grace’s blonde curls bounced at the slightest twitch. It had to be magic.
“Go already.” Grace shooed Ismene with a flap of both hands.
Her disquiet increased when she stepped through the door to find it empty save for Claudia, the round-faced girl her mother had introduced her to at the wedding ball. Claudia curtsied, but her eyes held a note of something like . . . alarm? Ismene couldn’t tell.
“Lady Grace! You’re late.” Claudia’s whine came out in a wheeze as she attempted a whisper.
“Oh, loosen your corset strings, Gargantua. We hastened here as quickly as we could, considering Milady here couldn’t walk a straight line.”
“I was blindfolded,” Ismene said, her consternation falling on deaf ears.
Claudia didn’t bat an eye at the name-calling, and Ismene hated to imagine how often Grace insulted her so that she’d grown hard to it. But her concern for the other girl dissipated while they conversed as if she wasn’t even there.
“Am I to wait or should I go now?” Claudia asked, wringing her hands.
“Go now, for pity’s sake. You’re higher strung than my great aunt’s prize stallion. If you busy the other ladies with the necessary distractions, I’ll be able to keep her out of sight.” Grace paused and gave Miranda a pointed look and continued. “You both know what to do?”
“Yes,” Miranda and Claudia said in unison.
Miranda rolled her eyes and walked to the door. Claudia stifled an awkward giggle and followed Miranda, but she stopped in the door suddenly and turned. She curtsied. “Highness,” she said and closed the door behind herself.
Ismene stared after them, her mouth slightly agape at the abruptness of it all. She wanted to walk out, to go with them. But would that ruin the celebration? Not that it mattered all that much to Ismene. After how Othniel had questioned her earlier and departed so abruptly, she lost all desire to go on with the game. She had to, though, since there were others who had been planning this event for weeks. It didn’t seem right to disrupt their hard work, but she couldn’t shake the fear that her stubborn unwillingness to answer him outright had done irrevocable damage. Why didn’t she just tell him? What am I afraid of? What does it matter that I like Lord Kendric? I—oh, Almighty, I’m an idiot. She should have spoken without any equivocation. The realization dawned on Ismene that Othniel had probably taken her words to mean something intimate—and . . . incorrect—about her feelings for the young lord.
“Why now?” she mumbled to herself. If only she’d not let her temper flair. She could not seek him out and repair her mistake. It would have to wait—a torturous thought, indeed.
Ismene slumped against the post to which she stood closest. Grace ignored her and busied herself at the lone piece of furniture in the room: a table. It sat forlorn, its legs skewed and surface uneven, holding a single lantern to light the entire place. Admittedly, there wasn’t much to it. The hearth sat cold. Cobwebs and dust festered on every inch of illuminated space, and from what Ismene could see of the bare room, aside from the scuff marks marring the fine dirt layering the floor, it looked as if no one had been here in years.
Grace carried the lantern to the door and used it to light a smaller one that she rehung outside the door. She closed the rickety thing, leaning on the creaky wood with the lantern held high in her hand and casting an eerie glow across the contours of her smiling face.
“Is this how the game is played?” Ismene asked, a pit growing in her stomach but for reasons she could not fully comprehend beyond her own stupidity.
“Oh yes,” Grace responded, her voice soft, “this is how the game is played.”
Ismene shivered almost imperceptibly. For some strange reason she imagined the small room growing. Or maybe it was she who shrank inch by inch the longer she stood in the center of it. No matter how much she wished to enjoy Fortnight, her intuition screamed at her to run. She could think of no reason for it outside the unfamiliarity of the situation, her deep wish to apologize to Othniel, and the fact that she was stuck with Grace. Without excuse, she forced herself to ignore the instinct.
Grace walked back to the table and placed the lantern down carefully at the center, then she turned and sat, unceremoniously pressing her fur-lined cream cloak against the edge of the grimy planks.
“Shouldn’t we . . . I mean, wouldn’t it be best if we were with the others?”
Grace smirked and shook her head. “Oh, Ismene, you are a naïve, silly girl. I honestly don’t know what Othniel sees in you.”
Ismene bristled and crossed her arms over her chest, not only from the coolness of the room, but against the growing chill in her heart. A part of her knew she deserved it, but Grace didn’t know anything about what callousness Ismene had paid Othniel. But something about how the blonde always spoke to her made Ismene want to argue. She uncrossed her arms and did her best to keep from balling her hands in fists. Of all the people she could have been left with, why Grace?
The other young woman moved toward her, looking her up and down as she walked a circle around Ismene. “Hmm . . .” She stopped in front of Ismene, towering at least an inch above, and looked down her perfect nose. “You’re far too plain to call beautiful, and your hair is too dark. I doubt he is enticed by anything about you other than your dowry.”
Ismene teetered at her breaking point. She gritted her teeth and took a deep breath to calm the livid, tenacious beast of her terrible judgment, so ready was she to lash out and call Grace every unkind name she could think of. But it didn’t matter how true the words might be, it would be wrong to say them, so Ismene held her tongue.
Grace lifted one eyebrow and smirked as if Ismene’s non-response were some kind of win in a battle of words. “Ooh, my dear Princess, you didn’t imagine he actually cared for you, did you? His sweet temperament is deceptive. I once, not so long ago, thought he cared enough for me to make me his wife, distant cousins though we be. But I was mistaken, and now everything must be done differently.”
“I don’t understand you.”
Grace tsked and stepped back. “Do you know who I am, Ismene?”
The door creaked open.
“If she hasn’t realized it yet, she soon will,” a gravely woman’s voice said from the doorway.
Alarmed, Ismene twisted around, her fingers gripping the post.
“Aunt,” Grace said, turning her back on Ismene, “I wondered how long you’d be. I’ve been entertaining our guest.” She stepped near Lady Grentich and kissed her cheek.
Six men dressed like castle guardsmen, all unfamiliar to Ismene, crowded in the small room. She stumbled back a step as unreasonable pinpricks of dread, like a whole slew of needles, pierced her steady pretense and raised goosebumps on her flesh.
“Madame, what is the meaning of this?” Ismene said, her voice small.
Lady Grentich placed a loving hand on Grace’s cheek and faced Ismene. The light sparkled in her eyes, sending Ismene’s heart to a wild rhythm. “Meaning? Simple, child. A new beginning. A rightful change.”