The hallways nearest to my room were the riskiest. I avoided the path I had taken the day that I’d escaped down to Vincent’s office, but I was still very aware that Septimus had known about those tunnels.
Though the path I was on now didn’t directly connect to the one I had taken then, I couldn’t be sure how much else he had discovered. By the time I reached the top level of the castle, I was moving very slowly, barely breathing, listening for any guards while simultaneously being silent as a ghost.
I didn’t hear much activity out there, unlike on the lower floors. The only thing in this wing was my room and Raihn’s, neither of which were the actual king’s quarters. Simon and Septimus had managed to launch their coup successfully by catching Raihn off-guard, but that didn’t mean they had any more manpower than he did. They’d have to use their forces sparingly, focused where they were most needed.
I had to hope that neither Simon nor Septimus thought they were needed up here.
I waited at the passageway to the main hall for several long seconds, ear to the door, before moving. When I heard nothing, I slipped through, sword in hand, promptly closing the passageway behind me.
The hall was empty. Silently, quickly, I moved along the wall, rounding one corner and then another until I came to our hallway.
Emptiness would have been too easy. Two guards waited for me.
Both of them, thankfully, were Rishan, not Bloodborn—no blood magic to deal with. They recognized me right away, but I didn’t give them time to
react before I lunged for them.
Two of them. Once, that would have been intimidating. Now, it was a relief. Only two? I could handle two.
As if awakened by the promise of imminent bloodshed, the Taker of Hearts warmed in my hands, the red glow of the blade flaring.
I thought about Mische, as the two men started for me.
I thought about the way their chosen master had abused Raihn, and the marks he had left long after the ones on his body had faded.
And suddenly, it wasn’t so hard to call upon my magic, the cold white of Nightfire mingling with the hot bloom of Vincent’s sword.
The last time I’d used it, I’d barely gotten to appreciate what an incredible weapon it was. This time, when the blade plunged through the first soldier’s chest, barely meeting resistance, burns of searing white spreading across his chest, I had to admire it.
It had never before been quite so easy to kill.
The second man staggered back in shock when he saw how quickly his companion fell. But to his credit, he wasn’t a coward. After a momentary stagger, he was coming at me again, sword drawn.
That half-second pause, though—that was enough.
I stepped aside, using his own momentum to throw him against the wall. It was awkward to use the sword when I was so accustomed to using my dual blades. I had to force my body to fight in a completely different way, mimicking Vincent’s steps instead of leaning on my own. In that moment of hesitation, he opened a slash across my cheek that left me hissing in pain.
I could so perfectly envision how Vincent would have countered. I’d witnessed it many times.
My execution wasn’t perfect, but it got the job done.
When I pulled back, my breath heavy, the Rishan was slumped against the wall, the Taker of Hearts skewered through his chest.
I withdrew it, not bothering to wipe the blade. Not that I had to—it was as if the weapon absorbed it, as hungry for bloodshed as I was. My Nightfire simmered. Already, I was thinking about wherever Raihn was right now—thinking far too vividly about him being overtaken in the dungeons, surrounded by soldiers, getting strung up again the way he had during the ball—
I went to my door and tried the knob. Locked. Of fucking course.
I knelt, examining the locks. All four required keys.
Could I… melt them, the way I had the day I escaped? Or…
I glanced down at my sword, coated with the beading remnants of blood. It seemed ridiculous to try to stab a lock into submission. Then again, if any weapon could do it…
My gaze fell to the blood on the blade. Then the bodies it had come from.
I went to the nearest slumped corpse. There, on his belt, was a little ring of silver keys.
Considering stabbing a door before I even looked for the keys. Goddess fucking help me. I was grateful Raihn wasn’t here to see this.
With some brief fumbling, I unlocked three of the four locks. It was only on the fourth one that it occurred to me:
Why was my room being guarded?
And why was it locked to begin with?
This thought only hit me as I pushed open the door, only to immediately dodge a vanity chair swinging at my head.
“Fuck,” I spat, hitting the ground in just the right way to disturb the worst of my wounds.
Thump, as the wielder of the weaponized chair let it fall to the ground.
I rolled over, wincing, to see Mische standing over me, her hands covering her mouth, eyes wide. She was still in her gown from the party, though it was now wrinkled, her makeup smeared.
“I am so glad you’re alive!”
She dropped to her knees, looking like she was about to fling her arms around my neck, then went suddenly serious, brow contorted.
“What the hell are you doing here? And why do you smell like that?” Once Mische’s questions started, they didn’t stop.
“Where’s Raihn?” she asked, as she helped me up. “How did you get in here? Did you see what’s happening outside? Is there an army coming?” And then, again, like the first time wasn’t enough, “Where’s Raihn?”
“We can talk and walk,” I said. “We don’t have much time.” Though, Goddess, I was happy to see her.
I lowered to grab my sword, which had fallen in Mische’s wild chair attack, and when she saw it, her eyes bulged.
“Gods, Oraya. You’ve actually wielded it?”
For some reason, Mische’s disbelief was the thing to make my own set in all at once, a wave that I’d been suppressing for the last two days.
It had been… a very, very strange two days.
“It’s… yes.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I just cleared my throat. “Let’s hurry. Guards might be coming or—”
“There were only those two.”
Mische put aside her shock, her face going serious.
Right. I went to my vanity and yanked open the top drawer.
“Why are you here?” I asked. “Why aren’t you in the dungeons?” A beat of silence.
“Let’s just go,” she said, going to the door, her back to me. “You said we don’t have time.”
I paused. There was a note to her voice that seemed… odd.
But she was right. We didn’t have time. I rummaged through one drawer of my vanity, then another, my heart rate rising.
It had been in here.
The pendant had been in here.
I was certain of it. I had been very careful about where I put it. I checked on it every night. But in the drawer was only a nest of useless fucking silks.
Not even a hint of its magic.
“Goddess fucking damn it,” I muttered. “What?” Mische asked.
“Did someone come in here?”
I ripped open another drawer, just in case I was wrong, even though I knew I wasn’t.
“Before me? I’ve only been here for a day. It took a few hours for them to—”
I slammed the drawer shut, hissing a curse.
They’d found it, then. They’d searched this room. Of course they had.
Septimus was a prick, but he wasn’t stupid.
It was gone. If it was in this room, I’d feel it.
I didn’t have time to think about what that meant. Not when, with every passing second, Raihn could be having his ass handed to him down in that dungeon.
I returned to Mische, who stared at me with a wrinkle between her brows. She had questions, I knew, but like me, she knew now was not the time to ask them. She went to one of the Rishan corpses and grabbed the sword from his still-rigid hand.
I’d fought alongside Mische several times now. But it still seemed a little strange every time I saw her with a weapon, mostly because she was so competent with them, and that seemed at odds with a personality like hers.
The two of us crept down the hall, moving swiftly and silently along the walls.
We just needed to get back to the tunnel and get back down to Raihn before—
It was the worst luck.
Horrifically, hilariously terrible luck.
A figure arrived at the top of the stairs at the exact same moment that we rounded the corner. We had no time to hear his steps and backtrack.
Our eyes locked. Ours to his. His to ours.
Fuck, I thought.
Mische went so still it was like she stopped breathing. Before us stood the Shadowborn prince.