XXVIII. A Lift Down

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Three years ago...

While she looked out the carriage window and at the distant lights from the mansion they were leaving behind, Alex could feel that Ned and Barto were assessing her curiously and suspiciously.

Not quite certain whether she could keep up her blank façade, she did not look at them eye to eye.

When his patience won over, Ned spoke. "What happened?"

Alex spared him a quick glance. "What d'ye mean?"

She stole Barto a glance as well. Her cousin's eyes were narrowed. "Ye disappeared fer long from the ballroom earlier," Barto said.

"Aye. Went te escape one of 'em Everards," she said, telling them the truth.

"Who?"

"One of 'em brothers," she said with a shrug. "Hid inside a bleedin' library," she lied this time.

"And?" Ned asked.

"What happened?" Barto insisted.

Alex's lips twitched into a secretive smile. "Nothin'."

*****

When Ralph and Durley finally arrived, they were both in haste.

"Ruin your clothes," Durley ordered. "And make haste."

Alex frowned. "Ruin me dress?" She turned to Ralph who explained. "We believe we found the passage."

Her eyes widened. "You did? Where?"

"An estate not far from here," Durley snapped in reply as he rushed to his bedchamber.

"But why do I have te ruin me clothes?" she asked Ralph.

"Because you are to be taken in as a slave, remember?" Durley cried from his room.

Ralph merely sighed as he looked at Alex. "We do not have much time, Alex."

"Oi, not all slaves wear ruined clothes," she pointedly said.

"Trust me, they do where we are going," Durley said, rushing from his room with his small bag. "Would you like me to ruin those instead?"

Alex growled. "How many bleedin' time do I have to dress up?" She shot Ralph a glance. "Next time, guv, I wanna to be a Guard."

Ralph shook his head with a sigh and led Alex to the bedroom. "Come, bandit, we do not have much time."

*****

"How did'ye figure it out?" Alex asked Ralph as they trudged through the rough path that led to the woods. She looked over her shoulder at the main road they came from. Distant sounds from the village cottages nearby were carried by the cold wind blowing through the night.

"We did not," Ralph said beside her. "We guessed."

Alex stopped and so did Ralph. Durley kept walking ahead, his steps digging into the ground.

She glared at Ralph. "Yer insane! Ye could be wrong!"

Ralph shook his head. "I am rarely wrong." He motioned with his arms. "Look around you, Alex, this is the perfect place to hide a passage." He pointed at the woods. "The estate beyond those woods is the entrance into the Dark Forest." He directed his finger down. "We are over the Dark Forest."

Alex looked around. She could not find any other place that could possibly hide a passage. But this all seemed too easy. Surely it should not be?

She looked at the woods ahead and moistened her lips. Durley was nearing the edge. He stopped and motioned for Alex and Ralph to move on.

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