“You have to wake up,” says a rough voice. It penetrates the edges of deep shadowy sleep.
I turn away from the familiar sound of Peter’s voice. What is he doing here? I don’t understand for a long moment. I try to snuggle deeper under the covers, but they’re too thin.
For some reason that makes all the memories come flooding back. They crash into me like a tidal wave, and I groan.
Dominique. The Jubilee. The darkness of a carriage. The flare of cold against my skin, the flash of surreal gold eyes.
I burrow my head into my arms. I suddenly want to shut the whole insane thing out, both the good and the bad. Dominique is working for the King. Peter loves me, and we’re going to lose each other because of it. Why can’t I just go back to sleep?
“Azure,” he whispers insistently. He touches my shoulder with his hand. I lean into him.
“Just two more minutes,” I plead.
“You have to listen to me,” his voice comes again. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
The urgent tone of his words finally makes me lift my face. Cold seeps in and covers my skin even through the threadbare blanket, sending goosebumps all over my body. I rub at my eyes as I sit up and lean against the spindly tree. “Peter?” I sigh. “Ugh. It wasn’t a dream.”
Peter shakes his head grimly. I can tell he wishes it was, after all, a dream. “No. It wasn’t.”
“Well, one can only dream up so much insanity,” I acknowledge. I look down at Peter’s hand twined around mine. Tension hangs between us in the silence like a rope pulled taut. “What is it?” I finally ask. “What’s going on?”
Peter tenses and then glances at something near the trail. For the first time, I notice that everyone else is asleep except one guard, who is standing on a tree stump overlooking the Root. He isn’t paying any attention to us.
“Do you remember the midnight Schoolhouse incident?” Peter asks finally. His tone is blank of inflection.
I search my memory for a second and then quickly straighten up as if a shock had gone up my spine. I do remember. Peter and I had only been twelve years old when one of the older boys had convinced him to sneak into the Schoolhouse. They’d never told me why, but with some difficulty, Peter had persuaded me to tag along. We’d nearly been caught by Miss Boadicey that night - we’d barely had time to escape. I’d been the one to create the diversion.
“Yes…” I say quietly, searching his face for clues. There’s an almost mischievous twinkle to his eyes, a remnant of the outgoing boy he’d been before magic changed him.
“I think I have an idea,” he says. He keeps his voice carefully low. “But if it’s going to work, you need to go with it no matter what. Even if I fall behind.” His hand tightens around mine. His eyes are dark. “There’s no other way.”
I try to convey my confusion to him with my eyes. Peter keeps his eyes focused on mine as he raises one hand and very subtly pulls something long and dark out of his sleeve. A second later, there’s the faintest click at the shackles on my wrists. The chain links clunk as they hit the ground.
I realize with a flash what he is doing. He’s trying to help me make an escape. I can see the certainty in his eyes. There’s no other way. He doesn’t care if he gets away or not, as long as I’m safe.
The pad of his thumb brushes across my knuckles as he leans forward, pressing his soft lips to my cheek. To the watch guard, it will look like a sentimental romantic gesture. Something sad but ordinary. But as Peter’s breath rushes out of his mouth, he whispers one word against my skin. His voice is so quiet that I barely hear it in the harshness of the wind. “Run.”
He turns away from me. His cold hard mask slides back into place like a metal wall. At that moment, I understand exactly what he is doing. This time, he will be the one creating the diversion, and I will be the one to escape.
A burst of adrenaline rushes through me. I don’t know if this idea will work, but if it means a chance to escape, I have to take it. With one fleeting glance cast at the watch guard to ensure he’s not watching me, I shift and rise quietly to my feet. I slip behind the tree so that I will look like a barely-moving shadow. There’s no time to tell Peter to follow me. I have to hope he’ll at least try to escape. I send out a silent prayer to anyone who might be listening. Please, let Peter escape.
I can hear the sound of footsteps across the clearing, even from behind the tree, but I can’t make out the words attached to the low murmur of voices. My stomach drops into my feet. I don’t dare peer around the tree.
I look at my surroundings. I’m in the corner of a little copse of thick green trees, perfect for hiding… but by the look of it, difficult to get out of. Adrenaline pumps through me. My senses sharpen to give me information about everything: the darkest shadows to hide in, the softest places to step. I observe the ground carefully and quickly as I begin to move. I hope against hope that I won’t step on a twig and crack it on accident.