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Chapter no 13 – Tessa

Defy the Night

When I awake, I have one blissful, quiet moment when I think everything was a dream, and I’ll blink into the morning sunlight and shudder over the tricks my mind played on me.

Instead, I can’t blink the darkness away, because there’s something over my head.

I can’t move my hands because they’re still chained, and the right one seems to have gone a bit numb.

My heart immediately leaps into action. I struggle to sit up, to right myself somehow, but I’m lying in what feels like a pile of pillows, and I can’t gain any leverage or traction. e guards did exactly what he said, and there’s a hood over my head, tied at the neck the way the prisoners wore them on the stage. I can’t tell what I’m wearing, but the heavy warmth of my homespun skirts is gone. I’m not naked, but the idea of someone undressing me while I was unconscious, of being at Prince Corrick’s mercy in that way, is . . . abhorrent. My stomach rolls and threatens to empty itself.

But my body doesn’t feel abused, aside from the aches from being chained. And I feel dressed, just not in my own clothes. From what I can tell, I’m alone.

I choke down my panic, little by little, until I can force my thoughts to organize. I need a plan.

I’m chained and eectively blindfolded. No plan is forthcoming.

ink, Tessaere’s a re somewhere to my le; I can hear it crackling. And I’m not sure how I can tell, but this room feels . . . large. Maybe I can roll myself somewhere that I can nd . . .

Find what? A key? I’m not sure who I think I’m kidding, but Weston would nd this hilarious.

What are you going to do?

I’m sure you can gure it out.

I can gure it out. I already have. Every time I think of it, the pit of my stomach gives way and I nearly vomit into this burlap sack. Just the memory of his terrible voice saying the words sets a tremor rolling through my body again.

No. A plan. I need one.

A door clicks, and I go still.

ere’s no noise—or maybe I can’t hear anything over the rush of my heart. Tension holds my body rigid, braced against the chains.

Something brushes against my bruised and aching wrist, and I jerk so violently that I think I might break my arm. I drive my feet into the oor, only nding more pillows and no traction.

“No!” I cry out as a hand closes around my forearm. I’m choking on each word, pulling away, my head shaking violently. “No! No! No—”

“Mind your mettle, Tessa.” e voice is low and so and so familiar that it forces me still the way nothing else would. “You don’t want to draw the guards in here.”

I’m frozen in place. I’m dreaming. is isn’t real. is can’t be real. “Wes?” I whisper, and my voice is so so.

“I’ll unchain you, but you have to be absolutely quiet.”

It’s his voice. It’s his voice. Maybe I’m hallucinating, but I’m nodding almost involuntarily. I don’t know how he’s alive, or where he found a key, or how he got in here, but I don’t care. His hands, always warm and sure, brush my wrists, and the chains give way.

“Tessa,” he says soly, “I need to tell you—”

I launch myself forward blindly and throw my arms around his neck.

ere’s still a sack tied around my head, and one hand has all but fallen asleep, but the relief that courses through me is so fast and true.

“Please say it’s you,” I whisper. “Please tell me I’m not dreaming.”

His hands come around my back, and he’s holding me lightly. His scent is in my nose, comforting and familiar. I was shaking in terror before, but now I’m shaky with adrenaline and relief. Wes is here. I want to burrow into him.

“Easy,” he says soly. “Easy.”

I have so many questions that they all ght to get out of my mouth at once, and I draw back. I have to ght to keep to a whisper. “How? How did you escape? Who’s hanging on the gate?” I start ghting with the knot at the

base of the sack, but half my ngers are numb and refuse to work. I need to see him. Nothing matters now that Wes is here—now that we’re together. “How can we get out? How long do we have before you’re discovered? How

—”

“Lord, Tessa.” He brushes my hands away with typical Wes-like impatience. “Hold still.”

I hear the swish of a blade and a quick rip of fabric, and the burlap sack loosens. Now I’m the impatient one, and I reach up to yank it free. I blink in the light as everything snaps into focus. I need to see the blue of his eyes and the stubble across his jaw and the few freckles the mask reveals and the—

My brain stops short.

e man in front of me isn’t Wes. Can’t be Wes.

Every ounce of relief shrivels up and dies. Panic swells to ll the space. I try to shove myself back, but my feet are still chained and my body isn’t ready for quick motion.

Regardless, he doesn’t pursue me, just sits crouched in front of me, the length of his black jacket pooling on the oor beside his boots. Reddish- brown hair dris across his forehead, and I know the pattern of those freckles. e knife hangs loosely in his hand.

I remember Karri’s words from the day of the riots. ey’re very handsome, don’t you think?

Prince Corrick.

My mouth is dry, my pulse a steady thrum in my ears. I can’t comprehend how he’d know the right words or have the right voice or why he’d go to the trouble, but this is a trick. A manipulation. It has to be. His eyes aren’t like Wes’s eyes at all. ey’re cold, and shuttered, and completely unreadable.

But they’re vivid blue.

When I don’t move, he sheaths the knife and reaches for my ankles.

I shove myself back again, and it’s easier now, my hands more willing to work—but there’s a wall beyond these pillows and I don’t go far. “Don’t you touch me,” I snap.

“I told you to keep your voice down.” His voice isn’t quite like Wes’s now either. ere’s a command in his tone that Wes lacked. An edge. An impatience.

He reaches for my ankles again.

“No!” I kick out at him. He seizes the chain easily, taking hold of my feet, but my hands are free, so I lurch forward and punch him right in the face.

I think I genuinely take him by surprise. He swears and rocks back, and it grants me a few feet of freedom, but I don’t get far before he grabs me again, so I swing around with my st ready. is time I catch him in the stomach, but he de ects.

“Tessa! Enough.” ere’s blood on his lip.

Good. I don’t care. I throw a punch right at his crotch. Direct hit. He doubles over. I scramble for the door.

My feet are still chained and I trip over myself, crashing to the oor. Corrick recovers faster than I’m ready for, and he takes hold of my shoulder and ips me over. I scream and kick at him again.

I hear the door click, but suddenly he’s on top of me, his hips pinning my hips, his dagger—what I hope is his dagger—jutting into my abdomen. I shove at him, but he catches one of my arms and slams it to the ground. I cry out and try to wrench free. He doesn’t give, but my shi does, and I hear fabric tear.

“I told you to be quiet,” he growls, his face terrifyingly close to mine. I jerk back and more fabric tears, revealing my breast.

Something in my abdomen clenches, and my vision goes spotty, as I remember the cold note in his voice when he told the consul, I’m sure you can gure it out. I’m wheezing now, and tears have lled my eyes. “No,” I cry, trying to nd leverage to strike at him. “No.”

“Your Highness,” says a male voice, and I freeze. e only thing worse than being assaulted by Corrick would be having it happen in front of an audience. But then the man says, “Are you in need of assistance?”

“Do I look like I’m in need of assistance?” Corrick snaps. “Get out.”

e door clicks closed. Corrick looks down at me from inches away. Blood has smeared across his cheek. His weight still pins me to the oor. My breathing is a wild rush between us.

“You snuck in here to kill me and my brother,” he says to me, and his voice is cold. “If you continue to ght me, the guards will continue to check.

eir captain wanted to station a guard inside my quarters. Do you understand me?”

I swallow and shake my head. I don’t understand any of this.

“Everyone in this palace expects the worst of me, Tessa.” When he reaches for the ripped fabric at my shoulder, I inch and shudder, but he simply pulls the cloth back up to cover any exposed skin. “e only place I can oer you safety is here, in this room.”

Either I’m insane or he is. I don’t know what to make of any of this. I sure don’t feel safe.

Maybe he can tell, because his eyes search mine. He sighs. “If I let you up, can you agree not to punch me again?”

I shake my head quickly, and he rolls his eyes—and all of a sudden, just for a icker of time, he looks like Wes. “Well, that’s true enough, I’m sure.”

He lets me go anyway, rolling agilely to his feet. He tosses a small ring of keys onto the oor beside me. “Unchain yourself.”

I try to pick up the keys, but my hands are shaking, and they rattle between my palms.

Corrick can surely hear it, but he moves away, toward a low table near the door. ere’s an array of bottles and glasses that sparkle in the light. He takes a glass and pours an amber liquid into it.

I’ve unchained my ankles, and I knot the fabric at my shoulder, but when he turns around, I coil the chain between my hands and glare up at him de antly.

He raises his eyebrows, then drinks whatever he poured in one swallow. “Would you rather be thrown into the Hold?”

No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t know.

Perhaps he can read that icker of indecision that crosses my face because he nods. “Fair enough.” He pours another glass. “Put the chain down.”

I tighten my ngers on the links.

e corner of his mouth turns up, but he looks more disappointed than amused—and again, just for the briefest moment, he reminds me of Wes. “Lord, Tessa.” He tosses back this drink just as quickly.

“Was it you the whole time?” I whisper.

“It certainly wasn’t me half the time.” He pours another drink. “Put the chain down. Now.”

at cold tone of command has reentered his voice, and it speaks to a place inside of me that wants to inch—but also wants to rebel. My palms have gone slick on the links, but I don’t let go. He might have backed off for

now, but he certainly wasn’t gentle in the throne room, when he must have known who I was.

Betrayal burns in my chest—but it’s also wrapped up in shock and disbelief. Wes is too kind, too compassionate, too . . . not this man.

“Prove it,” I say, and my voice wavers, but I square my shoulders and keep my eyes locked on his. “Prove you’re Wes. Prove you’re not tricking me.”

I expect him to refuse, because I’m in no position to make demands, but he sets down his glass and moves across the room to a low chest. He burrows through it for a moment, then draws out a length of black fabric and a hat.

He ties the mask into place, then eases the hat onto his head, giving the brim a tug in a way that’s unequivocally Weston. My breath catches. e length of chain slips out of my ngers to rattle against the oor.

I don’t know what this means. I don’t know what to do. I press my hands against my mouth to keep from crying out. Too many emotions are warring in my chest. Relief. Fury. Despair. For days, I’ve been grieving Weston’s death, and now, to discover that it was all a trick . . .

is is an entirely dierent kind of grief. An entirely dierent kind of loss. When Wes died, I lost the hope of . . . of any kind of future with him.

With this discovery, it’s like losing all of our history, too.

He takes off the hat and removes the mask, burying them down in the chest again. When he’s done, he returns to the side table and picks up the glass with the amber liquid.

I expect him to toss this back as quickly as he did the others, but to my surprise, he approaches me and holds it out. “You look like you need this more than I do.”

I don’t want to take it—but he’s not wrong. When he releases it into my hands, the liquid is trembling.

I close my ngers around the glass and breathe. I want to throw it at him.

As if he can read my thoughts, he says, “If you throw it at me, I’ll cut your hands o.”

I keep my hands clutched tightly around the drink. If he were Wes, I’d know he was kidding. But he’s not Wes, he’s one of the most feared men in all of Kandala, and I know for a fact he’s done worse. I don’t have to look farther than the men hanging from the sector gate.

I stare up at him and wonder who he killed to make this secret last.

I wonder why he kept this secret. Why he did this at all. Why he killed someone else to fake the death of Weston Lark. For as betrayed as I feel, the confusion about all of it is almost worse. What did he have to gain?

He’s looking back at me without any hint of emotion on his face, oering no clues. So I keep the glass and I take a sip, and the liquor burns a path all the way down to my belly.

And then, because all of this fury and loss and anger and disappointment has to go somewhere, I draw back my hand and throw the drink right at him.

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