Page 55


‘And the girls who come willingly are loyal?’ I demand.
‘Of course. The Guild controls their families, Adelice,’ he says. ‘Not many question it, and those who do—’
‘What happens to them?’
Erik shakes his head.
‘Is that why they watch us? Me?’ I ask flatly. ‘Because my parents are dead and my kid sister wouldn’t recognise me? Because they have nothing to hold over me?’
‘Maybe,’ Erik admits, and I hit him hard in the chest. I hate him for telling me the truth. I hit him again and again, and he lets me. Finally my hands hurt from hitting the mass of his solid chest, and I crumble against him. For a long time we say nothing and I pace my breathing to his; our chests rise and fall rhythmically, a promise of normality.
‘Adelice,’ he whispers, still holding me perfectly still. ‘I wouldn’t count on them both being dead.’
My breath catches and blocks all my thoughts from tumbling out.
‘The Guild is too smart to kill off a Spinster’s family and expect her to be of service to them, but they’ll make sure that you have almost nothing left,’ he warns me, speaking so quietly against my hair I barely hear him.
‘They have my sister, Amie.’ I force myself to face facts. ‘They remapped her though.’
‘Younger than you?’
He furrows his brow. ‘And your parents – did you see them die?’
The body bag in the dining room flickers into my mind.
‘My dad. I know he’s dead,’ I say in a hollow voice.
‘But they only told you they killed your mother?’
A thousand tiny pieces of shattered hope tug together in my chest.
‘Wait.’ I pull back and meet his eyes. I keep my voice low but everything comes out in a rush. ‘Are you saying my mother might be alive?’
‘Yes, she’s definitely alive.’ But he barely gets the words out, because my mouth is on his. I’m kissing him out of joy or maybe panic, but soon the kiss shifts from excitement to something much more serious, and my body moulds up against his. His lips move slowly, his hand pressing against the small of my back. I want to weave this moment out and make it last forever. The feeling of my heart racing, the slight taste of wine on his lips, how my hips lock against his.
But Maela has other plans.
When Erik and I break from our embrace, Maela is standing several feet away on the small stone path. The moon shines behind her, obscuring her face, but her posture – straight and rigid – tells me all I need to know. Well, almost. I need to know how long she’s been there more than anything else. More than I need to know how she feels about the kiss or what she’ll do to us now that we’ve been caught. I have a pretty good idea about that.
‘Erik,’ she says in a calm voice. ‘I need you to escort a couple of ministers to the guest quarters. All of the valets are busy.’
Erik glances over at me, and then back to her. His hand is still on the small of my back and when he removes it, the bite of night air blows along my bare flesh, making me shiver. He casts a worried look my way, but turns to Maela. ‘I’ll escort Adelice to her apartment first.’
‘I think you’ve given her enough attention this evening,’ Maela murmurs, stepping forward. As she does, the shadows fade off her face, and I see that she’s crying.
I never thought I’d feel sorry for her, especially if I was ever lucky enough to hurt her. But her running mascara makes me want to shrink back and hide among the vines and branches.
‘Were you following me?’ he demands.
‘I needed you,’ she says quietly.
‘There are fifty other guards in there,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘You don’t own me. I work for you.’
Her nostrils flare at the cruelty of his words, and even I feel their sting. This is getting awkward.
‘You wouldn’t be here if not for me,’ she reminds him. ‘You’d be stuck slaving in the kitchen or rotting on some boat trying to fish for a living. So unless you want to go back there, I expect you to see the ministers upstairs. Adelice can find her own way back.’
At the mention of his past, he’s not willing to press it further, and he disappears into the wild, black silhouette of the trees without another word to her – or to me.
Maela isn’t moving. I consider my options. I can try to leave, but I will have to pass her, which will put me within arm’s reach, and I’m not altogether comfortable with that idea. Or I can strike up a conversation, but nothing is running through my head except the feeling of Erik’s lips, and she’s not going to want to discuss that. The third option is to stare her down, and since that’s the least dangerous one it’s what I do.
‘Good night, Adelice,’ Maela says, turning away from me. ‘The party is still going on, but I’ve had enough.’ Without another word she withdraws along the path that Erik took.
When I get back to the hall, Erik is busy gathering up drunk politicians, and I try to avoid catching his attention. Things are complicated enough at the moment. Maela is nowhere to be seen and neither is Enora. Good. I don’t need a night in the cells or a lecture right now. All I need is a bed.
Whether it’s from the relief of having hope that my mother is alive or a bit too much wine, I slip into a deep sleep as soon as I hit the sheets, but what seems like moments later I’m shaken awake. It takes me a while to adjust to the sight of a panic-stricken Enora hovering over me.