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Kendric’s arms wrapped tight around her waist, and Ismene screamed into the gag on her mouth. This could not be happening. It could not. She never anticipated they planned to murder the prince. The idea seemed inconceivable, but here was all the proof necessary.
Not only would they kill her, but they’d commit this most heinous act against the prince, and they’d already ruthlessly taken the life of that poor servant girl. Helein’s face flashed before her eyes, and Ismene said a quick prayer of thankfulness that her personal maid would be nowhere near this hall this particular night.
Ismene had no idea where the treachery might end, but she could not look at Othniel without her soul crying out to Almighty. He could not die. If she could forfeit her life for his, she thought she’d gladly do it. His worth was above her own, and Taisce needed him far more than her. She was nothing but a bargaining chip with a dowry and a political father.
Something contrary and selfish inside her fought against the whisperings of love that rolled like a gently cunning fog through her heart. If she could get beyond the circumstances that brought about their relationship, she would have no barrier to the truth. But no matter if now love drove her or duty, she could not bear to see Othniel forcibly dragged toward the fourposter bed at the center of the room.
She fought hard against the pull of Kendric’s arms, but her own remained tightly secured behind her back.
“Release me!” she cried against the gag, but the words came out muffled and unclear.
“Lady Ismene, please. You must trust me. Shhhh.” He leaned in and whispered next to her ear, his breath tickling against her skin. “He wants you protected, and I gave my word.”
Ismene shivered but stilled, her eyes still on Othniel who fought valiantly against the rough hands of the men called Vladentine and Jordel. The smaller one issued instructions as they dragged Othniel. She couldn’t breathe, the constricting of her throat waging its own war against her body’s will to live.
But in her motionlessness, Kendric did something. He loosened the knot of the gag, and she could feel the tip of a knife poke and prod at the skin of her wrists as he sawed at the rope holding them in place. He did it quickly, but she could sense his desire to keep the motion hidden. At the same time, he pulled her back inch by inch until they were near the door.
Everyone else’s attention was on Othniel. He never looked away from her, all the time he fought his captors. They forced him to his knees with his back to Lady Grentich.
“Ismene. You must not fear,” he said before Lady Grentich could finish tying a gag around his mouth.
Ismene couldn’t tear her eyes away from him, even if she wanted. She caught the pointed glance he gave Kendric, but wanted to ignore what she saw there: a signal. Instead, she willed Othniel every vestige of strength she could muster. She had never believed before this moment that such a thing was possible, but in her desperate prayers, she envisioned the force of her life strengthening his.
Suddenly the ropes strangling her wrists broke loose.
“Now is the time. Trust me,” Kendric said for her alone.
He put the knife into her hand and squeezed her fingers around it. The warm handle seemed incongruent with the cold steel’s ability to rend life from a body; she could not think beyond that sensation. In the next second, Kendric swung her around behind him as if in a dance. His fingers still around hers on the blade, he placed the sharp edge against his neck and grasped her free arm, pulling her body tight against his back, as if she now stood captor over him.
“Move to the door,” he said, mumbling the words almost to the point Ismene couldn’t understand him.
He stepped back, giving her an extra clue, and as her brain caught up to what he was doing, she obeyed, moving them to the door. Ismene had become so wrapped up in the unsaid plan of escape that she forgot about Grace in the chair by the fire. Her mind and body were split between thinking how to escape and the plight of Othniel. She hesitated, resisting Kendric’s backward push toward the door. But Othniel’s command, cried out around the gag choking off his voice, shook her from the indecision.
“Go!” Othniel cried, the one word the only thing Ismene could bring herself to obey.
Within his grasp, Kendric reached for the handle, but Grace noticed their veiled escape and rose with a haughty air of insult.
“What is this? The Lord Selin overpowered by a mousy little girl? You take us for fools? Stop them!” she bellowed like the shrill feline she was.
“Go!” yelled Kendric, panic and desperation making him hasty and causing a shallow slice across his neck where he’d held Ismene’s hand to his throat.
She had no time to think, no time to react, only to act. The knife in one hand, Kendric’s grip on her other, she ran from the room, her last vision of the chaos within was Othniel with his hands free from the rope! A burst of hope sprang up within her. Surely, he’d be able to overpower those men and escape.
Kendric dragged her faster down the hall.
“Come, my lady! They cannot risk the prince escaping! We must run!”
They met no one in their mad dash, and it wasn’t until he pulled her in to the rose conservatory that she realized where they were. Ismene had no idea what time it was, only that most in the castle would be asleep or participating in Fortnight. The section of the castle where the royal family’s chambers were only housed Ismene, Othniel, and the king. The dowager queen mother had long since moved to her own tower of chambers for privacy. No one would be around to hear the scuffle.
“We have to go back,” she said, her insistence steeped in fear even she couldn’t deny.
“No, princess, we cannot.”
“We cannot leave him,” she said, pulling against his hand, her chest heaving as she struggled to catch her breath.
He sighed, a heavy, frustrated rush of air. “We must,” he said in the midst of also trying to calm his breathing. “It’s only a matter of time before they and every other man at Lady Grentich’s command come after us.”
Ismene yanked her hand free of Kendric’s. “You cannot stop me.” Her voice trembled, contrary to the vehemence of her words. And even while saying them, she pictured that stubborn, idiot of a girl that always got her in trouble. She really shouldn’t listen to that girl. But this was Othniel, and that girl might be the only one who could save him tonight.
Kendric stepped between Ismene and the door, at the same time pulling the knife from her death-like grip. She spun to face him.
“I cannot allow you to do it, Ismene, my lady. He made it very clear, and I have every intention of keeping you safe.”
“And so, you leave your sovereign to die?”
Kendric’s frown deepened, the bright light of the high moon illuminating his face through the canopy of windows above. “Is that all he is to you, Ismene?” He opened his mouth to speak again but shut it. Ismene thought she knew what he was asking, but she could not think of that now.
After a few seconds staring contest, Ismene’s iron will won out, and Kendric stepped back with a frustrated huff of air and his fingers jammed throughout his hair.
“We cannot stay here any longer. They will have gone for help by now. All exits will be blocked if we don’t get out this minute.”
“My lord, I cannot let him die. I—what will this do to the kingdom?”
“Nothing good, but it cannot be helped right now.” Kendric reached for her hand, but she stepped back and pressed her palm to her abdomen. He sighed again, more frustration shimmering off him in waves. “Would you believe me when I say that they will likely not kill him if you are not there and I am not in their clutches?”
Ismene considered his words but knew time was short.
Ismene stiffened, her heart skipping a beat. Seemingly by instinct, Kendric stepped around, his back to Ismene and his sword drawn against the soft feminine voice lost within the rose garden.
“Bimala?” Ismene hesitated to move.
“Yes, my lady,” Bimala said, stepping out of the deeper shadows. Her open face illuminated by a small candle she slowly uncovered. The garden maid and the concerned look she wore were a welcome sight as far as Ismene was concerned.
“Put your sword away, sir. Bimala is no threat.”
“The prince trusts her, so I do also.”
Kendric slid his sword back in the sheath and said, “Lady Bimala, is there another way out of this room? I assumed a servant’s entrance, but . . . .”
Bimala looked between the two of them, her furrowed brow deepening, its shadow more pronounced in the darkness.
“It’s all right, Bimala, but we cannot explain now. Only, we need you to gather what servants you can. Only those you can trust,” Ismene added hastily.
“Princess,” Kendric said, warning filling his voice, “there is no time, and we put the prince at further risk by being captured. We must go.”
“If you are in danger, you must listen, princess,” Bimala said, her matter-of-fact tone hard to argue with.
“I . . . all right. I will obey. But only for now. I need to think, and if you are speaking true, that Othniel is in more danger if we stay, then we must go. For . . . only for now.”
Kendric wasted no time; he reached for her hand again and pulled her toward the other end of the conservatory, following behind Bimala through the fragrant paths that brought back memories of Ismene and Kendric’s first real encounter at the castle. Ismene didn’t fully understand why she let him pull her away from Othniel, but she desperately wanted to believe the words he said, that keeping her distance would prolong his life.
Bimala pulled open a hidden door to the servant’s entrance; it lay behind a decorative shelf of potted roses. Once through, they entered a long hall with doors along both side and lit by only a few dim torches. Even this hall stood empty.
“They say they will frame you for his death,” Kendric whispered once in the empty hall, “and then kill you to cover the evidence. They say they need my name and wealth as ‘future Lord Selin’ to maintain their hold, which I assume means a mercenary army that will further ravage our lands. But if we are not present, they will be forced to halt their scheming and rethink. They will come looking for us, and it will stop them from moving forward. But time is limited.”
Ismene struggled to wrap her mind around the words he said. All she could picture was seeing Kendric holding Othniel’s arm, keeping him from coming to her. She couldn’t see past her utter shock of discovering how Kendric secretly worked with Lady Grentich until that decisive moment. She could not grasp his motives for why he now risked his life to save hers and possibly prevent Othniel’s death. Why help the enemy then appear to change his mind?
“How long?” she asked.
They stopped at the end of the hall where another door stood closed before them. Bimala motioned for them to remain silent. They pressed to the wall, hiding in the shadow as she opened it and stepped out. Bimala disappeared around the door and Ismene held her breath. She should not be here with Kendric. She should be in that room, doing everything she could to help Othniel.
“If you’d stayed, you would be dead right now, and so would he,” Kendric said as if were reading her thoughts. Ismene shivered again, her skin prickling.
She could see half his face illuminated by the light shining through the cracked door. Earnestness filled every line of his serious face; she’d not recognized it before and decided to set aside her growing doubts. “How long? How long until they change this plan of theirs and murder him with or without me as part of it?”
“It’s already changed more than once. They are a devious lot.” Kendric turned away, looked to where Bimala had gone only a few seconds before. He slumped against the wall, his defenses temporarily down. “I—”
“Come,” Bimala whispered, her head leaned around the open door.
Bimala led them down corridor after corridor, always vigilant to check them before allowing Ismene and Kendric to proceed. They went this way until they exited into a paltry alleyway with the overpowering stench of rotting matter and waste. Ismene stepped out and a blast of cold air blew through the folds of her beautiful, archaic gown, regrettably useless against the dropping late fall temperatures.
“I will gather who I can, my lady, and we will come to you,” Bimala said, sending furtive glances back within the hall.
“Get Helein. Do not let them hurt her, Bimala,” Ismene said with renewed urgency.
“We will be at the Four Feathers. Ask for Lillith,” Kendric said and grabbed Ismene’s hand, dragging her away before another word could be passed between them.
Ismene allowed him to lead her, but she cast one last look back at Bimala who waved once and disappeared.
Ismene took a deep breath and jerked Kendric to a halt in the midst of the darkness. “Answer me, Kendric.” The stench permeating the air reminded Ismene of death and choked her of breath for reasons beyond putrescence. “How long?”
Kendric huffed, his reluctance more than clear. “Sunrise, my lady. They will surely kill him at sunrise.”