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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 couldn’t fathom 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 might 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 profound affection 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 what drove her, whether duty or a profound esteem for him, 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 hers remained tightly secured behind her back.
“Release me!” she cried against the gag, but the words came out muffled and indistinct.
“Lady Ismene, please. You must trust me. Shhhh.” He leaned in and whispered next to her ear, his breath tickling against her skin. “I gave my word to protect you.”
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 stayed focused on Othniel, but 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 mustn’t fear. I lo—” Lady Grentich cut off his words with a gag over 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 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, wrapped up in the unsaid plan of escape, 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 indecision.
Within his grasp, Kendric reached for the handle, but Grace had already 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!” Othniel and Kendric cried in unison. Ismene could only hear Othniel’s muffled voice, his commanding force.
Panic and desperation caused Kendric’s hasty movement, and the knife made 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, Ismene! They cannot risk the prince escaping! We must run!”
Othniel ground his teeth upon the cloth in his mouth and watched—helpless against his restraints and pressed to his knees—as Kendric inched Ismene toward the door. He continued to struggle, doing his best to keep all eyes and attention focused on him while also working the bindings of his wrists looser.
If Kendric could get Ismene out the door, they’d have a chance of escape. That was all Othniel could hope for at this point. Ismene stopped struggling but looked ready to cry again. She did not, and he couldn’t look away from her. Seeing her surprising bravery gave him a surge of energy.
A movement out of the corner of his eye distracted him. Grace. She no longer watched him, but now her eyes were on Ismene and Kendric. She understood and wasted no time. Instinct drove his thoughts.
“Go!” he screamed around the pinch of cloth gagging him and wrenched at his still-bound wrists.
The burn of rope sliced into his skin like hot pokers, but he didn’t care, not as long as Ismene’s life was in danger. He yanked once more. The rope snapped. His freed hands flew forward to break his fall. One last look showed him Ismene’s stunned face before she disappeared around the door.
Lord Vladentine made to race after Ismene and Kendric, but from Othniel’s position on all fours on the floor, he reached out and grabbed Vladentine’s ankle. The tall man toppled like a felled tree, his weight slamming into the floor with a thunderous crack and rumble. Vladentine had been so busy pulling his sword from the sheath he’d not been able to get his hands out to break the fall, and his head met the hard wood planks, bouncing twice before coming to rest.