Chapter 32

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I skirt around the edge of the ball, making my way back to the door we came in through. Two different guards are standing outside, looking bored now that everyone has arrived.

The one on the right stops me when I try to go by. "I'm sorry miss, but guests are not permitted to wander through the castle unescorted."

"Oh I didn't know." I say, trying my best to sound weak and breathless. "Would one of you gentleman mind escorting me back to my room then? I'm afraid I'm not feeling well and want to retire for the night."

Willow told me that tons of guests have been arriving the last few days for the ball. I don't want anyone reporting that I'm leaving the ball early, not when there's a possibility that Darius might find out. So Talia Kinsley won't be leaving.

Both men immediately offer me their arm and assure me that it would be their pleasure.

"Which room are you staying in?'' The guard whose arm I take asks, leading me away from the door. He's young and handsome, probably relatively new.

"I'm not exactly sure, although I do know it's next to Lady Kinsley's room. Such a sweet girl. My name is Annabel Lancast, if that helps.'' I flutter my eyelashes and grip his arm a little tighter. I've given him the name of a girl from our town, plain with huge curly hair.

He looks confused. "I know where Lady Kinsley is staying but I wasn't aware that they put any of the guests in that wing.''

"Oh, I was told there was an issue with my room when I arrived. They assured me this room is only temporary, but all of the usual guest suites were full.''

To my relief, he nods absentmindedly, leading me up the stairs and down a hall that looks familiar. Damn this huge maze of a castle.

I chat the whole time about the ball and how grand the castle is, trying to keep his mind off the strangeness of the situation. By the time we reached Willow's hallway, I have him laughing at story about a clumsy maid, a roast goose and my half blind aunt that I've completely made up.

"I believe I can make it from here,'' I say. "I'm clearly in your debt, thank you for escorting me safely. I feel so much safer in this castle knowing that there are men like you around.''

"It was my pleasure.'' He grins broadly, bows deeply and leaves, glancing behind him twice.

The second he disappears around the corner, I take off as quickly as I can in my satin slippers. Everyone is at the ball so the halls are completely deserted. I reach the correct hallway quickly and pause to listen for a second before opening the doorway. It slides open silently, cold, dusty smelling air sending my dress fluttering around my feet.

I fight back a shiver, suddenly wishing I'd worn a dress with a little more fabric. Or talked that guard into giving me his jacket.

"Well, I can honestly say that I didn't expect to see this,'' Hale's voice says from behind me, making me jump.

I whirl around to find him standing at the end of the hallway, looking triumphant and intrigued.

"You followed me?'' I demand, heart racing.

"Obviously.'' He makes his way over to peek into the dark depths of the passage. "That's rather unsettling. What's down there that's worth sneaking around and lying about?''

This is bad. Hale is finding out everything, every dangerous thing he isn't supposed to know. Panic claws in my chest before I shove it down and think logically.

He's already seen Willow's powers, so her secret is out. And here he is, a potential ally that I desperately need. Perhaps having someone help me, to share everything with could be what I need to find answers. It would be stupid to turn him away, not that I'm sure I can at this point.

I recall Sebastian telling me on one of my first days here that Hale hates a puzzle that he can't solve. And here I am, with pieces that don't fit.

It feels like the right decision, the only one.

"Listen closely because we don't have much time.'' I close the door back up, just in case anyone happens to walk by. "I'm going to give you the quick version and you're not going to ask anything because I need your help and every minute we spend here is dangerous. Deal?''

He nods, face serious.

I give him the fastest version I can. Willow's power, the necromancer, being found and brought here, something evil infecting Willow, discovering the secret passage and the conversation I'd overheard. I skim over so many details, I not even sure if what I'm saying makes sense and Hale's unchanging expression isn't helping.

"So now Willow thinks the same evil force did something to you earlier to make you act the way you did. We can hopefully find out why later. But I need to get down into that room," I jab a finger at the wall, "and see if I can find any clues while Darius is at the ball and you're going to help me.'' I finish with a huge sigh of relief. Getting that all out feels strangely cathartic.

"I just have one question,'' Hale says slowly, face still blank. I wave my hands impatiently, already turning back to reopen the passageway. "After everything that's happened, you were still going to go down there by yourself, alone and unarmed?''

I turn around, confused by the change of his voice and find that he's furious, eyes twin green flames.

"I'm not that stupid,'' I say hotly. "I never go anywhere unarmed anymore.''

Hale's incredulous eyes rake down my body. "Oh really?'' he scoffs. "What were you planning on doing, beating someone over the head with your shoe?''

Anger flushes through me. "Actually, I was planning on stabbing them with this,'' I all but snarl, yanking up the right side of my dress to reveal the silver dagger strapped to my thigh. I'd gone back into the bathroom and grabbed it after Dee dressed me up, not feeling comfortable without it.

Hale freezes, staring at my leg, bare and exposed from thigh to ankle. But I'm so mad that I don't care, huffing and shoving my dress back down.

He clears his throat and gestures for me to lead the way as the door swings open. His eyes are dark, and I think of how he looked at me on the dance floor, a shiver running down my spine.

"Just follow me,'' I mutter, starting down the stairs without waiting for a reply. I'm already starting to regret my decision.

Just like before, I keep one hand on the wall to guide me and creep down the stairs carefully. The air is still sour and musty but something is different, something smells more.... Rotten.

Hale follows closely behind me, his footsteps nearly silent. Once again, the passageway door swings closed on its own and we are plunged into complete  darkness.

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