TWENTY-TWO

THE CORRIDORS OF the basement are blessedly deserted. I lead Naito and Evan through the narrow tunnels, hoping I can get us out of here quickly. Both times I traveled to the storage room I came from the other direction. I would have turned right outside the door if Raen hadn’t told us to go left. I can only assume this way is safer, that the fae guard took the other way out.

My torch lights the way, its glow bathing the stone walls in its blue-white light. I listen for footsteps, for the rustle of cloth, the creak of jaedric armor, or a soft inhalation of air. Anything to indicate someone’s approaching. I hear nothing, nothing but the sound of my heart thudding in my chest and the occasional shuffles of Naito and Evan.

Despite the cool air beneath the palace, sweat dampens my forehead. I’m worried about Aren, about Kelia and Sethan, and—maybe just a tiny bit—about Lena. I need them all to be okay.

Another corridor, still no sign of the fae. This escape attempt is going eerily well, a fact that makes my skin tingle with apprehension as I lead us up a set of stairs. They curve sharply to the right. I can’t see anything around the bend.

I slow almost to a stop as I near the turn. God, I don’t like this. It’s too easy, too quiet.

“What’s wrong?” Naito whispers.

I shake my head to indicate nothing, force my paranoia aside, and round the curve.

No one’s there. A gate is at the top of the steps, though. I hurry the rest of the way, praying it isn’t locked.

It is.

“Let me try.” Naito slides past me, taking from his pocket the ring of keys he confiscated from the unconscious guard. I wince when they clatter and scrape against the metal lock. Naito’s trying to be quiet, but with the corridor so silent . . .

“Got it.” He pushes the gate open. Its screech echoes off the stone walls.

Evan curses behind us.

“Wait here,” I whisper. I’m barely able to squeeze through the narrow crack without opening the gate farther. I scan the empty corridor. I’m about to tell Naito and Evan it’s clear when a fae steps into the passageway no more than twenty feet to my left. The blue-white glow from my torch highlights his face. It’s Taber. Shit.

“Hi, Taber,” I say, stepping toward him.

“McKenzie?” He frowns at the open gate. “What are you doing here?”

Think, McKenzie. Think!

“Kyol gave me keys.”

Taber scans me slowly, head to toe. “Your robe doesn’t fit.”

I look down. “No . . . but it’s, um, warm.”

He cocks his head. “Perhaps I should escort you back to your room?”

“That would be great, actually.” I move toward him, praying he’ll turn around and walk with me, but his frown vanishes. He moves past me, shoving my arm aside when I try to block his path.

A second before he reaches the gate, Naito and Evan burst out. Naito rams his shoulder into Taber’s chest, throwing the fae backward. Evan grabs his arms, holds him down while Naito grabs Taber’s head and slams it once . . . twice . . . three times into the stone floor.

Taber lies still.

Naito stands, wiping the fae’s blood off on his pants. Evan is slower getting to his feet—I think he’s weak from sitting in that tiny prison—but neither human holds my attention for long.

“What’s wrong?” Naito asks. “He’ll be fine once a healer sees to him.”

I start backing away, pointing the orbed end of my torch toward the three fae running toward us.

Evan turns, curses. He unslings his crossbow from his shoulder, arms it with an arrow, then sights the weapon down the corridor.

“Run!” he orders as the bolt thrums from the bow. It strikes the leg of the fae in the center.

Evan nocks another arrow. The other two fae take cover in an alcove, pulling their injured comrade with them and calling out an alarm.

I chuck my torch aside—no need to hide our edarratae anymore—and run.

“Come on!” Naito yells.

Evan abandons his attack and follows. We fly past a set of stairs.

“There’s an exit,” I shout at Naito, who’s edged in front of me. “Ahead and to the right.” It’ll get us out of the palace. If we can make it into the city, we might have a chance.

Fae rush into the far end of the corridor. We skid to a halt, lose precious seconds as we all seem to realize at once they’ll cut us off before we make it to the intersection.

Naito shoves me the other way. The two uninjured fae emerge from their alcove at the corridor’s other end, sandwiching us in.

Evan shoots off another arrow. Misses.

Naito draws his sword. “Up!”

I lunge for the staircase, fly up the steps two at a time with Evan and Naito on my heels.

We’re going to have to hide, not run. I try the handle of the wooden door in front of me. Locked. I rush to the next one while Naito tries the doors on the left side of the hall.

Evan fires down the stairs.

“I can’t hold them off,” he yells, sliding another bolt into place. He fires again.

“Here!” Naito shoves open a door.

Evan reaches it first. I run through after him, an instant too slow. A fae grabs me, swinging me around as his two companions rush into the room. I brace a hand against the wall, manage to stay upright long enough to kick the door shut and slam the latch into place.

My captor launches me against the wall. My head hits hard. My vision blurs, blackens. I blink the spots from my eyes in time to focus on Naito.

He lurches forward, plunging his sword through the back of the fae holding me. It almost skewers me as well. The point of his blade stabs toward my stomach, just above my belly button. I flatten my back against the wall and suck in.

Naito pulls his sword free and then grabs my arm as the fae falls. He curses as he stares at my stomach.

“I’m fine,” I assure him as the fae vanishes into the ether. I push Naito farther into the room, away from the door, which is now being pounded on from the other side.

The two fae who made it in circle Evan, their swords drawn, ready to strike as soon as he lowers his crossbow or shoots. Even if Evan kills one of them, there’s no way he’ll get another arrow nocked before the other fae cuts him down. I’m not even sure he has another arrow.

Naito pulls me to Evan’s side. There might be three of us, but we’re human. The Court has the advantage. They’ve spent years honing their skills. If we weren’t in the Silver Palace, we’d already be dead. They’d fissure behind us and strike us down.

And time’s on their side, not ours. They can wait for backup to break down the door.

We’re in a parlor or some other type of sitting room. There’s only the one exit and then three arched windows set into the wall on our left.

The windows. We’re one tall story off the ground. The fall is likely to hurt, but it’ll be better than a sword through the gut.

I don’t pause to second-guess my plan. I grab a chair and launch it through the glass.

Evan shoots the same instant. The bolt plunges into the shoulder of the fae on the left. The other lunges forward. He slashes into Evan’s forearm before the human dodges back.

Naito attacks, swinging his sword at the fae’s head. The fae ducks, parries, and strikes out, seemingly all in one move.

I shove Evan toward the window. He dropped his crossbow when the fae cut into his arm. He tries drawing his sword, but his hand is slick with blood.

“Get out of here. Go!”

He drags in a breath, nods. “Don’t leave him.”

He hands me his sword. When he jumps, I turn back to the fight, swinging my blade at the fae who’s still standing when he takes a stab at Naito. He blocks my attack easily, advances with a thrust of his own. I parry and stagger back. Alone, I’d be dead—alone, Naito would be dead—but together, we manage to keep the fae off.

“The window,” I say. “Go!” I grunt when a particularly hard hit rattles through my sword.

“You first,” Naito throws back.

I take a swing at the fae’s head. Miss.

“He knows who I am,” I say, not knowing if I’m telling a lie or not. “He’ll turn me over to Kyol. You have to get back to Kelia. Go! Now!”

He wants to protest—I see it in his eyes—but invoking Kelia’s name does the trick.

The fae curses when Naito makes a leap for the window. I put myself between them, forcing the fae to focus on me. He parries my attack and strikes back. The sword flies from my hand and clatters against the wall.

I draw my poisoned dagger. Throw it.

The fae raises his off hand in defense and bats the dagger aside. The throw wasn’t hard or fast, but the blade is sharp and blood wells from a small cut on the top of his hand.

I don’t wait for the poison to kick in; I lunge for the window.

He catches me. I swing back with an elbow, manage to catch his chin, but his hold doesn’t loosen. He throws me to the floor, pins me there.

I shove my knee into his groin, but there’s no momentum behind it. He slips to the side. His hands tighten around my wrists.

“Be still,” he snarls in Fae.

A flash of pain bursts behind my eyes when I head-butt him. He grunts, but I’m certain I did more harm to me than to him. I can barely focus. His face wavers above me. I struggle, bucking and twisting and trying to squirm away.

He wavers again. This time, it’s not just my vision. His arms buckle and he collapses on top of me. I lie there, gasping for air, then somehow I manage to shove him away.

Rolling to my stomach, I crawl on all fours toward the window, my arms shaking beneath me. I grab the window’s edge, ignore the glass biting into my palms, and will my muscles to cooperate.

My upper torso drapes over the windowsill. Glass pricks my skin, but Raen’s cloak protects me from too much damage. The street below is empty. It’s going to hurt when I hit, but I need to get out of here. The fae are still beating on the door.

My weight is split between the room and the outside world. I’m about to slide over the edge when something grabs me. It’s a Court fae, the one with the crossbow bolt through his shoulder. He drags me back inside the room as the door bursts open and the king’s swordsmen charge inside.

I scream myself awake. Cold. Wet. Caught. My teeth clatter and someone throws a second bucket of water over my head.

I cry out again. My skin seems to freeze over my bones.

“Ah, there you are,” Radath’s voice croons just inside the reach of a hanging orb’s blue glow. He overturns his bucket at the edge of the light and sits.

I wish I could remain unconscious. Everything hurts: my ribs and stomach, my back, and especially my shoulders and arms. My hands are shackled securely to the wall. There isn’t a length of chain or anything between it and my silver manacles; I can’t adjust my position at all.

“You need to start talking,” Radath says. “You can start by explaining what you were doing last night.”

I’m so damn cold it’s a struggle to pull my thoughts together. I squeeze my eyes shut, open them, and search the shadows of my prison. How did I get here? How much does Radath know?

“Where did you get this?” Radath asks. He’s holding something in his hand. A dagger, the one Raen gave me.

“I want to talk to Taltrayn.” I try to keep my voice steady, but I’m shivering too much.

Radath laughs. “Of course you do.”

Something moves in my peripheral vision. A tiny glimmer of hope rises in me. It’s snuffed out an instant later when Micid, not Kyol, steps into the light.

Radath follows my line of sight. “I’ve brought along my ther’rothi. He asked to meet you.”

The fae’s gaze oozes over me. I’m already shivering, but a deeper tremble runs through my body.

“Micid is a rare breed,” Radath continues. “Possibly unique. Show her what you do.”

The ther’rothi’s lips stretch into a smile one moment before he disappears. I press back against the wall, afraid of what he’ll do, but he reappears a few seconds later in the exact same spot. That’s when confusion sinks in. Radath said Micid wanted to meet me, but we already met. And I already know what he can do. Why the demonstration?

Radath chuckles. “Does it bother you? Not being able to see him? I learned of his magic a few years ago and agreed to keep it secret—only the king and I know what he can do. In exchange, he works for me when I need him.”

Someone’s not keeping it a secret, but I’m not about to correct the lord general.

Radath leans forward, drops his voice to a whisper. “I also ignore his little trips to tjandel.”

Tjandel. I recognize the word. Micid said he visited there.

“Unfamiliar with the place?” Radath inquires. He wants me to ask about it. I won’t.

“It’s a . . . What do your people call it? A whorehouse. Yes. It’s a whorehouse in an unsavory district on the edge of Corrist. It’s outside the silver walls, so its clientele can fissure in and out without being seen. I know of many nobles who have tasted the delights there. All would deny it, but not Micid. Micid is addicted to the whores. Addicted, in fact, to their chaos lusters.”

It feels like Radath just dumped a third bucket of icy water over my head.

“Most of the whores are there willingly,” he says, his voice saccharine. “Some of them aren’t. They don’t all have the Sight, and Micid has a fetish for humans who scream and thrash beneath him. He likes them slightly insane, grasping and clawing at the invisible demon they believe to be inside them. Since you do have the Sight, you’ll understand what’s happening, but I’m sure he wouldn’t be opposed to breaking you in. You’d scream for him, wouldn’t you, McKenzie?”

Micid watches me with a small, sadistic smile.

Then, suddenly, Radath gets to the point. “There were two others with you last night. Who were they?”

He doesn’t know about Naito and Evan. Thank God. They must have escaped. At least I accomplished something last night. I sit straighter, trying to ease the bite of the shackles into my wrists.

Radath lifts the poisoned dagger. Carefully, he slides its blade under a damp lock of my hair, lifting it out of my face. He wants me to be scared of him—I am—but I won’t tell him about the humans. It won’t save me; it will only condemn Kyol.

Radath grips the left side of my neck in one big hand, laying the dagger flat against the other side, right over the puckered scar Aren left on my skin. His hand tightens, constricting my airway. “Who were they?”

I have to tell him something, something that will appease him and buy me time.

“Rebels,” I choke out. “I was supposed to get them inside the palace.”

Radath’s grip loosens. Micid, smirking at the edge of the orb’s glow, lifts an eyebrow. He doesn’t deny my claim, though. He really doesn’t want the lord general to know we met before.

“And what were these rebels supposed to do,” Radath asks, “once they came inside?”

I scrape up the courage to pin him with a glare. “They were supposed to kill you.”

Radath chuckles. “I’m as untouchable as the king, McKenzie.”

A door creaks open. “Lord General.”

I let out a shaky breath. Kyol’s found me.

“I told Atroth I would handle her,” Radath says without turning.

“I will handle her,” Kyol says. I’m not sure if his coldness is directed at Radath or at me.

“You already had an opportunity to make her cooperate,” Radath says, switching to Fae. “You failed. She’s no longer your pet.”

“You may discuss that with Atroth. He wishes to speak with you.”

The lord general glares at me without rising. I don’t think he’s going to leave. He doesn’t take orders from Kyol, and he seems to enjoy having me chained to this wall. My interactions with him over the years have been few, but I never thought he’d treat me like this. Of course, I never thought I’d give him reason to.

Radath’s shoulders slump. Then, with obvious reluctance, he stands, turning to Kyol. “She’s betrayed our king, swordmaster. Atroth expects her to be punished. I expect you to pry out the rest of her secrets. Understood?”

“Understood.” Kyol’s expression gives away nothing.

Radath gestures to Micid. The ther’rothi leaves my cell first. Radath follows.

He smiles, then lets the door thunk shut behind him.

For a long time, Kyol doesn’t move. A thousand different apologies make their way to my tongue. They die before they pass my lips. I’d do it over again to save Naito and Evan.

“How could you be so foolish?” Kyol demands. I flinch at his tone. “They were safe, McKenzie! You were safe!”

He strides beneath the orb, his fists clenched at his sides.

“I couldn’t stay here, Kyol.”

“So you were going back to him!”

“I—” My voice cracks. My chin quivers. I bite my lower lip, refusing to cry.

“McKenzie.” His voice is pained now. He drops to his knees in front of me, his face drawn and shoulders hunched as if he’s just lost a war.

My heart twists in my chest. Still, I swallow back an apology. Instead, I softly ask, “Can you get me out of here?”

He scrubs his hands over his face. “I don’t know.”

I don’t really have a right to ask it of him. I got myself into this mess; he should make me get out of it.

“Sidhe.” He cups my cheek in his hand and leans his forehead against mine. We stay like that for a long time, him warm, strong, and steady; me cold, wet, and shivering. I feel raw, like my emotions have been stripped away, layer by layer, leaving my soul pink with abrasions. Even the edarratae seem dull and distant.

“If you want out of here, McKenzie, you have to give me something. Atroth won’t consider releasing you without information on the rebels.”

I can’t help the Court anymore. The rebellion might have done things I don’t like, but the Court’s manipulated and used me. Radath’s ordered humans executed, and I’m certain he gave my name to the vigilantes hoping they would kill me. The king’s done nothing to stop the lord general. Kyol’s done nothing to stop his king.

“I can’t,” I whisper.

He lets out a long sigh and then, slowly, he slides his hand up my left arm toward the manacles. When he reaches my wrist, a part of me is convinced he’s going to free me anyway, but then his fingers slip to the diamond necklace hidden under my sleeve. He tugs, and the necklace falls free in his hand.

He touches the center stone and then nods to himself. “This will buy your freedom.”

Oh, God.

“No, Kyol, you can’t!”

“Shh, kaesha.” He places his fingers over my mouth. “It’s the only way to save you.”

I yank against my shackles. “No, wait. Listen. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know. I’ll do whatever you want, but please—please—don’t do this. Don’t trade my life for his.”

His face is expressionless as he rises; only his eyes betray how much I’m hurting him.

“You’ll hate me for this, won’t you?” he asks.

I nod because I don’t trust my voice. Aren trusted me with his life. He was confident I wouldn’t betray him. If the Court fae show up at the anchor-stone’s location, he’ll think I care nothing for him.

Kyol slips the necklace inside his pocket. “I’m sorry, McKenzie. For everything.”

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