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Chapter 17

One lesson that I’ve learned over the years is that it’s easier to get in trouble than to get out of it. Though I’m not currently in trouble per se, I am currently in a dark cellar trying to figure out how to get out of said cellar without getting caught.

I mean, technically I’m not supposed to be in here and I may be holding a few more carrots than could be considered okay.

Like, ten more?

I don’t even know what I’m planning on doing with them, to be honest. I just know that they’re worth smuggling out of this place. I’ve already got them secured on my person, but I also realized that if a person god a good look at my knife belt, they wouldn’t see as many weapons as they would vegetables.

That might not entirely work in my favor.

This leaves me squatting at the top of the steps, in turn trying to forget about the pain in my thighs and the fear of being hit with the door and getting knocked back down the stairs and injuring myself. As I result, I may or may not be clinging to the door with all of my strength.

I slowly pulled the door open a centimeter, then an inch until I could peek carefully around it. People were still moving around in the kitchen and none of them seemed alarmed by the opening door. I pulled it open more and more slowly, careful to stay in the shadow. By the time it was open almost a foot, my heart was racing and I was breathing quickly. I covered my mouth with my hand in an attempt at muffling it and peeked out of the door before darting out and behind a counter.

“Edda, I put the potatoes in the corner,” the man from the cellar said.

“Thank you, Lou.” The woman mixing something in the corner said. “Could you shut the cellar? The darned thing blew open again.”

Blew open?

“Sure,” the man walked over and shut the cellar again before turning back to Edda, smiling. “Anything else I can do before I head off?”

“Tell Marcus to get more potatoes next time he’s out,” Edda replied, glancing over at him with eyes sparkling with humor.

Lou’s face turned solemn. “I don’t know that he can, Edda,” he replied, “Marcus says that vegetables are low enough as they are. You can’t buy something that just isn’t there.”

“True enough,” Edda sighed. “All I can do is hope that they won’t have my head if I start mixing a few turnips in the potatoes.”

“I’m sure you’ll disguise it well,” Lou assured her. “I’ve got to head out, now.”

Edda turned her head up and he gave her a quick peck on the cheek before walking out the door.

I would’ve dwelled on it, but I was focused on the door. I held it after Lou disappeared and waited a few moments before slipping out, slowly closing it behind me. I looked down the hall and took a small breath before pulling my shoulders back and confidently walking down the hall.

All carrots aside, I was feeling quite comfortable here. The reason my heart was racing so quickly was definitely because of the carrots that were in my knife belt.

It wasn’t at all because I was realizing the direness of the famine that was creeping over Black.

I turned corners and walked in what was probably a four-leaf clover by the time I stopped. I sighed, hesitantly reaching for another door. “This had better be it this time,” I muttered to myself.

The door creaked open in the same way the first few doors I’d tried had, but it didn’t result in the same thing. The first door had led to a library, which was cool, but from then on out it wasn’t quite as fun. The second was a girl cleaning with tears running down her face - I chose to believe that they were because of the dust - and the third had been some room that was... I don’t even know. All I know is that it was oddly full of rats; like someone was purposely keeping them there.

This door led into darkness just like the door to the meeting room did. I slipped in and almost shut the door behind me. Instead of letting it close, I ran over the floor with my foot and eventually found a small piece of something that would work as a doorstop.

I crept around, using my foot to feel around before braving a step. The further I walked down, the more I was confident that it was the meeting room. And yet, no one was here.

It was as Cole had said. The royals couldn’t be here all the time, so it made sense that they weren’t here anymore, but... where could they be?

I stumbled around, remembering that there was a light around somewhere. It took a while, but I found a long string in the middle that was too thick to be a strand of spider silk. I pulled it and the lights turned on immediately, blinding me.

As my eyes adjusted, I looked around the room slowly. It looked like it had the last few times when I’d come in here: plain stone walls, wood across the ceiling, and a wooden staircase that looked dangerous. But as I looked around, I noticed discrepancies along the walls.

I walked over to the nearest one and touched it lightly, my finger sliding off easily. I frowned in confusion. The surface looked similar to stone, but it was glossy and smooth in a way that stone could never be however much you polished it. I settled both hands on it and pushed, remembering what my dad had taught me about false walls. When nothing happened after reaching my hand over all the parts I could reach, I looked around for the nearest, most worn spot that could possibly be a trigger.

The floor was grody and leaves that had been tracked in were scattered among what I knew were dead bugs. Deep down, I knew there would be live bugs somewhere, but I didn’t care about them when they were alive as much as I cared about touching their dead bodies.

I gently brushed away all the stuff on the ground and examined the floor. There wasn’t anything that I could tell on the ground itself. Slowly, I brought my eyes up to the corner where the floor and wall met. For a moment, I blinked in surprise, but then I looked closer. It was a small flower, carefully inked in faded yellow. I ran it over with my fingers and it moved.

I tried to dig my fingers under it, thinking it was a charm or something, but my fingers didn’t slide under it. Instead, my finger pushed it in more until it was deep in the wall. Something clicked and the wall shook before sliding away, revealing a passage.

I stared in amazement, slowly pushing myself up. I almost didn’t notice the dirt in the air from the wall sliding away; I was too caught up in wondering over the contraption.

I crept towards it slowly, more in awe than cautious. I inspected where the wall disappeared, but the only telltale signs were the slight shine of metal in the stone. Everything else looked intact, as though the door had been there all along. I ran my hand along it, looking as close as I could get my face to it.

“Well, it seems you’ve found more than you bargained for,” Cole’s voice echoed in the room, sounding even louder once it reached the narrow corridor that I was standing in the middle of.

My gut clenched and I pulled myself up, mustering all my confidence. “You’re underestimating what I expected to find in such a mysterious place.” I ran my hand over the door again as a taunt of sorts.

Cole didn’t look angry or frustrated; if anything, he looked thoughtful and the slightest bit confused. He tried to keep his face blank, but it didn’t work. “I am, am I?” Amusement crept into his voice even though his face didn’t show it.

I let my hand fall back to my side. “I suppose I can’t know the full extent of how much, but yes.” I looked at him with eyes narrowed in calculation. “I don’t suppose you’d like to explain,” I swept my arms to the side, “This?” I couldn’t stop the greedy smile from sliding over my face.

Cole’s eyes flicked over me once before he stepped closer. “Well, since I promised truthfulness, I suppose I’m bound to it.”

I watched him suspiciously. “You are,” I confirmed slowly, knowing something was up.

An odd smile crossed Cole’s face and he grabbed my arm, pulling me into the tunnel. “How about I give you a tour now, then?”

I tried to pull my arm from his grasp, but he held firm. My heart raced but my mind slowed, echoing one thought.

Something’s wrong.

Something’s wrong.

Something is very, very wrong.

We passed the doors and Cole scuffed his feet on the ground. After a few seconds, there was a small click, and the doors began to move again. This time, they were closing behind us. The dark crept in and I pulled my arm away from him with renewed effort.

“What are you doing?” I hissed fearfully.

“Giving you a tour,” Cole replied easily, smiling. His teeth glinted in the remaining light before we plunged into darkness.

I let out a breath, knowing that I was well and truly trapped and at his mercy unless I could somehow tilt the scales in my favor.

“Well, then,” I said, forcing nonchalance. “Suppose we rush this? I have places to be.”

“It’d be my pleasure.”

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