Authors: Michelle Zink
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Copyright © 2012 by Michelle Zink
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Book design by Jasmin Rubero
Text set in Perpetua Std
Printed in the U.S.A.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
CIP is available.
For Steven Malk,
who never stops believing.
hough it was late, it was not the sound of arguing that woke Helen in the dead of night.
She lay in bed for a long time after retiring, listening to the rise and fall of voices coming from the library. It was a familiar sound, comforting rather than worrisome. Her mother and father often met with the others, though the meetings had become more frequent and heated of late. Yet, there was something about this night, the cadence of these voices—however familiar—that made Helen’s nerves tingle, as if they were humming too close to the surface of her skin.
At first, she tried to decipher the words drifting through the vents set into the floor of her chambers, especially when they sounded in her father’s familiar baritone or the strong, clear voice of her mother. But after a while, Helen gave up, opting instead to let her mind wander as she stared at the canopy above her head.
Her thoughts settled on the morning’s fencing exercises and her argument with Father. It was not the first time she had rebelled against the recent addition to her curriculum. She still failed to see how fencing could contribute anything to her schooling, but Father’s word was law when it came to her education. He knew well that Helen’s prowess lay in the strategy of chess, in the logic problems and cryptographs she could solve faster than he, not in the agile movement required of her on the ballroom floor where they practiced fencing. Still, he pushed. Using the foil out of deference to her inexperience was his only concession. Were Father working with one of his usual sparring partners, he would, without question, have used his saber. Now, in the muffled quiet of her bedchamber, Helen vowed that in time Father would use a saber with her as well.
She didn’t remember slipping into the emptiness of sleep, and she did not awaken gently. It was the sound of hurried footsteps down the hall that caused her to sit up in bed, her heart racing. She did not have time to contemplate the possibilities before the door was thrown open, candlelight from the sconces in the hall throwing strange shadows across the walls and floor of her sleeping chamber.
Scooting to the headboard, she pulled the coverlet to her
chin, too frightened to be ashamed for her childish behavior.
“You must get out of bed, Helen. Now.”
The voice was her mother’s. She moved into the darkness of the room, the strange shadows disappearing as she crossed to the dressing table. She fumbled with something—the glass jars and scent decanters atop the vanity clinking noisily together.
“But… it’s the middle of the night!”
Her mother turned then, and a shaft of light from the hall illuminated the valise in her hand. The realization that her mother was packing, packing Helen’s things, blew like a hurricane through the confusion of her mind. Her mother was across the room in seconds, leaning over the bed and speaking close to her face.
“You’re in grave danger, Helen.” Her mother pulled the coverlet from Helen’s shivering body. Her nightdress was twisted around her thighs, and the cold air bit her skin as her mother’s hand encircled her arm, already pulling her from the warmth of her bed. “Now, come.”
The carpets were cool under Helen’s bare feet as she was led to the wall next to the wardrobe. Her mother reached into the bodice of her gown, pulling from it a chain with something dangling at its end. It caught the light spilling in from the hall,
glimmering faintly in the darkness as her mother removed it from her neck. Fear coiled like a snake in Helen’s stomach as her mother pushed aside the large mirror in the corner, bending to the paneled wall behind it. She continued speaking as she worked something against the plaster.
“I know you won’t understand. Not yet. But someday you will, and until then you must trust me.”
Helen was oddly speechless. It was not that she had nothing to say. Nothing to ask. She simply had so many questions that they washed over her like waves, one right after the other. She had no time to formulate one before the next carried it away. She could not make out what her mother was doing, bent forward in the darkness, head tipped to the wall, but she listened as something scratched against the wallpaper. A moment later, her mother straightened, and a door swung outward, revealing a hole in the plaster.
Even in the dark, Helen saw tenderness in her mother’s eyes as she reached out, pulling Helen roughly against her body. In her mother’s hair, Helen smelled roses from the garden, and on the fine surface of her mother’s skin, the books to which her head was always bent. They were a memory all their own.
“Helen… Helen,” her mother murmured. “You must
remember one thing.” She pulled back, looking into Helen’s eyes. “You know more than you think. Whatever else you discover, remember that.”
Voices erupted from downstairs, and though the words themselves were indistinct, it was obvious they were spoken in anger or fear. Her mother dared a glance at the door before turning back to Helen with renewed fervor.
“Take this.” She thrust a piece of crumpled paper into Helen’s hand. “Take it and sit very quietly, until you know they’re gone. There is a stair that will lead you beneath the house and back up again farther down the road. Join with Darius and Griffin. The address is here. They will take you to Galizur. You have everything you need, but you must be silent as you make your escape. If they hear you, they will find you.” She paused, forcing Helen’s chin up so that she was looking straight into her eyes. “And this is important, Helen: If they find you, they will kill you.”
you!” Helen cried.
“Listen to me.” Her mother’s voice became firmer, almost angry as she grabbed hold of Helen’s shoulders. “You
do this, Helen. You will get out of here alive, whatever else happens. Otherwise, it’s all for nothing. Do you understand?”
Helen shook her head. “No! Mother, please tell me what’s happening!” But she already knew her mother would not. Already knew, somehow, that they were out of time.
Her mother lifted the chain from around her neck, placing it around Helen’s. A key at the end of it fell to the front of her nightdress.
Holding her daughter’s face between her hands, Helen’s mother leaned in to kiss her forehead. “Lock the door from the inside. Use the pendant to light your way—but don’t make a move until you are certain they won’t hear you. And be safe, my love.”
Helen was shoved into the hole in the wall, the valise pressed against her until she had no choice but to wrap her arms around it. She ducked, stumbling through the small doorway, trying not to smack her head. Her mother paused one last time, as if reconsidering, and then, without another word, she began to push the door closed. She became a smaller and smaller sliver, disappearing bit by bit until she was gone entirely in the small click of the door.
“Lock it, Helen. Now.” Her mother’s voice was a hiss from the other side of the wall. Helen fought a surge of panic as she heard the wallpaper smoothed over the keyhole, the mirror dragged over the opening to her hiding place.
It was worse than dark inside the wall. It was as if she had fallen into nothingness. She set the bag down, feeling for its clasp in the darkness. She had no idea what was on the piece of paper her mother had given her, but it was damp with the sweat of her palm. She couldn’t read it now if she wanted to, and she pushed it inside the bag.
She reached for the chain around her neck until she found the key at its end. Grasping it in one hand, she fumbled around the edge of the wall in front of her with the other, trying to locate the lock she knew must be there. Her hands shook with rising panic. The door cut into the wall was almost seamless, making it nearly impossible to find in the darkness. She was on her third pass when she finally felt a slim line in the plaster. Running her fingers slowly over it, she felt for the keyhole. It seemed like far too long before she finally came upon it.
She was trying to fit the key in the lock when noise burst from somewhere beyond the chamber. She could not fathom its direction, for she was wrapped in the muffled cocoon of wood and plaster that was her hiding place. Still, she strained to decipher the sound. She thought she heard shouting… weeping. And then a crash that caused her to startle. The key dropped from her hand, falling with a clink to the floor. She hesitated only a moment.