Take the Key and Lock Her Up

Page 55

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"I should have stayed home. If I hadn't seen Dominic … if I hadn't heard him with the prime minister … if I hadn't …"
"Look at me, Grace." Ms. Chancellor's grip is solid. "Look at me and listen closely. You did not do this. This is not your fault. These events were set into motion two hundred years ago, and you are simply trying to bear this weight as well as you can." She tips my head up, makes me look into her eyes. "This is not your fault," she says one final time.
I only wish I could believe her.
"Well, what have we here?"
A kind of panic fills the room at the sound of the deep voice. At first, I think it must be because a man has dared to invade such a feminine space, but all around us, seamstresses fumble and maids curtsy and even the air is changing.
As soon as I turn, I see why.
Even Ms. Chancellor drops into a curtsy-one far lower than the one I'm supposed to give a duchess.
"Grace," she whispers, and I realize I'm still standing atop the little stage the seamstresses use, looking out in my blue dress. I'm just starting to remember where and what I am when the king reaches me in two long strides.
"We meet again, Ms. Blakely."
"Uh …" I drop into my curtsy. My head is bent when I say, "I'm honored, Your Majesty."
"Stand up, girl. Let me look you over."
I do as the king says because … well … he's the king. But he doesn't seem like a king in this moment. His smile is too broad, his laugh too loud as he reads my bemused expression, then asks, "How's the old man? Pinching all the pretty nurses, I'd bet."
It takes me a minute to remember the camaraderie he shared with my grandfather the night we met.
"He is much improved, Your Majesty. I'm told he should make a full recovery."
"Excellent. Very glad to hear it."
Slowly, I force myself to look up, to meet his gaze.
He doesn't seem evil. He doesn't look like a monster who would see everyone with my DNA exterminated just to keep his place on the throne. But I know better.
No one in this palace is my friend.
"Is this for something special?" The king gestures at my new blue ball gown.
"You know it is, you big flirt," Princess Ann tells him with a laugh. "Now, shoo. No boys allowed."
"Even sovereign rulers?" he asks.
"Especially them," she says, playfully pushing him toward the door.
"Five decades on the throne and this is how they treat me, Ms. Blakely. Makes me wish I'd been a teacher." His voice drops. He almost sounds a little wistful. "I would have liked to have been a teacher."
And then the king of Adria is in the hall. He is walking away.
He didn't chose to wear the crown, I realize. But he has chosen to keep it.
It's all I can do not to take his head.
The walls around the palace are at least twenty feet high. Higher in places. But they're short compared to the wall around the city. When darkness falls, I ease out my third-story window and drop onto the brick ledge below, but I'm not even a little bit afraid. I should be, I know. If I were normal. If I had good sense. If I were sane.
But I'm not any of those things, so it doesn't matter.
The gardens are surprisingly dark in the middle of the night, but it's not hard to find the big tree I saw on my walk with Dominic. Its limbs stretch across the top of the wall, and it's like I am on autopilot as I start to climb.
Part of me thinks I should warn palace security that they have some serious gaps in their perimeter. Part of me is just glad that they've spent all their time keeping people out. Makes it that much harder for them to keep me in.
The moon is high and the streets are empty. I was gone for weeks, I have to remind myself. It's like a part of me expects the Festival of the Fortnight to still be going on, to see hordes of tourists, to smell smoke and see fire. But the streets of Valancia are almost empty, almost still as I walk away from the palace.
I am almost alone.
"Hey, Lila," I say, studying the girl before me.
She's like a shiny, sparkly specter as she steps out of the shadows. "I was wondering when the prodigal was going to come home."
She's Noah's twin sister, and they're both tall and thin with beautiful dark skin and jet-black hair. They have the same strange accent that's a blend of Portuguese, Hebrew, English, and Adrian. But, really, that's where the similarities end.
Noah would have made a joke by now.
Noah would have made me smile, made me laugh, made me forget.
Lila looks like she's here to make me pay.
"What did you do to Alexei?"
Has she been lingering outside the palace for hours, lying in wait? Is this some kind of coincidence? Or maybe Lila just knows me well enough to know that it was only a matter of time until I did something stupid.
"How is he?" I ask, even though I'm half-afraid of the answer.
Lila raises one shoulder, the chicest of shrugs. "How do you think he is? He's got a mother who is back from the dead, a father who wanted to hand him to the wolves, and a whatever-you-are who has dumped him for a prince. He's Alexei. He's Russian. He's fine. Except in all the ways he's terrible. You're a smart girl. You knew that."

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